RANCHO MIRAGE — Time was, when the National Football League owners didn't know whether to present Commissioner Pete Rozelle with another raise or a halo. The league ledgers were as black as night, strikes were for baseball and coke was something you put in ice cream floats.
Those were the days when no one knew how to spell litigation, except maybe Raider owner Al Davis and Judge Wapner. When NFL owners assembled, their meetings had all the urgency of a Brownie bake sale.
Now look at them. Among the concerns:
--Negative publicity generated by the disclosure that the New England Patriots, last season's Super Bowl runner-up, had at least 12 players involved in drugs. The information became public one day after 127 million television viewers watched and later wondered how the Chicago Bears won, 46-10.
"I myself didn't know about our drug problems until the day after the Super Bowl, and I've always tried to stay close to my players," said Billy Sullivan, and he owns the Patriots.
--The continuing battle between management and the players association over the issue of random testing and the institution of a new, comprehensive drug plan. The players say random testing is an invasion of privacy. The owners say privacy ended the day those players signed on the dotted line.
Shades, however faint, of the bad-mouthing that preceded the players' strike in 1982.
--The United States Football League suit against the NFL. . . . The St. Louis Cardinals' attempt to seek legal permission to move their franchise. . . . The NFL's appeal in the Raiders case, a case that could cost the league millions of dollars (as much as $70 million), not to mention more embarrassment. . . . A recent Sports Illustrated story about gambling that linked Ram Vice President John Shaw to alleged improprieties. . . . The collective bargaining agreement between management and the players union, which ends after the 1986 season. . . . The upcoming network television contract negotiations.
On and on it goes. What happened to the era when the NFL's biggest worry was whether to use one- or two-inch-high kicking tees?
Even the exalted Rozelle isn't immune from back-biting. Several NFL owners say Rozelle's rule no longer enjoys the same aura it once did. Included in the list is Davis, who lives by the creed: If you don't have something nice to say about Rozelle, say it. That's predictable.
But Rozelle also finds himself answering questions by other owners. It seems as if the lawsuits, the lingering drug situation, the possibility of red ink and the concerns over a restructured collective bargaining agreement and a new, less lucrative television contract have made some owners edgy. Rozelle becomes their target of sorts.
"It just seems that he's being attacked from more different angles than I've ever seen," said Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints. "Every time I turn around, it seems like, owners, media, players association, somebody is attacking the commissioner on different things."
Said Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell: "To be very frank, I'm an NFL loyalist, I believe in our system and I am a supporter of Rozelle. I've had disagreements with him, but I support the system and support the league as it's constituted. But I believe the attacks on Rozelle, to a great extent, have come within our own ranks. And if there has been an erosion of his power base, it has, from some extent, come from within."
Other owners point to Rozelle's record and dismiss any thought of unrest. "There are some factions that challenge him, just to challenge him," said Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., owner of the San Francisco 49ers. "I think he's done a good job overall."
When questioned about league trouble, NFL owners delight in mentioning past difficulties and how they were overcome. Remember the World Football League and how quickly it disappeared? Recall the American Football League and the subsequent merger? Another crisis handled. And how about the 1982 strike? After that debacle, attendance and television ratings are lofty once again.
"The NFL's popularity is as high as it's ever been," said Joe Robbie, owner of the Miami Dolphins.
"You can't draw 127 million viewers for a Super Bowl on a Sunday in a January, which is 6.5 million more than the highest-rated show ever, and say that the league is in trouble," Modell said.
Perhaps, but when asked to rank the NFL's leading troubles, Rozelle said: "We've got a lot of problems. It's tough to rate."
And what of owners' concerns that NFL risks alienating its viewers, fans and television sponsors with a current drug policy that may be perceived as less encompassing than the programs used in the National Basketball Assn. or in major league baseball.
So the NFL may not be in need of a life jacket, but it certainly needs to consider a new stroke.