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Commentary : Rozelle's Anti-Drug Plan Is Too Late and Much Too Little

July 20, 1986|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

When Pete Rozelle and Peter Ueberroth get into a contest to see who can stake out the higher moral ground, that's entertainment.

Just a couple of months ago, Ueberroth performed a magical pre-emptive strike. By pure sleight of hand, baseball's commissioner made his sport's drug problem vanish. One day, to hear Ueberroth tell it, baseball was ravaged by a cocaine menace. The next day the sun rose, Ueberroth surveyed his domain and the problem was gone like a morning mist.

"Baseball has solved its drug problem."

What a relief.

Rozelle must have wanted to pull out his sideburns. Like a natural politician, Ueberroth had spotted a trend and jumped ahead of it. Cocaine was quickly becoming passe!

Last Monday, Rozelle fired back. With an equally grand, equally empty and equally risky gesture, Rozelle attempted to do by fiat what Ueberroth had done by magic. With a righteous furor building in the wake of the deaths of Len Bias and Don Rogers, he had to act. Instead of offering a proposal that might (after hard bargaining) have become a reality, Rozelle dreamed up a cure-all grandstand policy that hasn't a snowflake's chance of enduring beyond the week's headlines.

Rozelle took to his lectern and--in the name of "the health and welfare of players"--unilaterally instituted a league-wide program of mandatory random drug testing. Rozelle claimed the league would test for cocaine, marijuana, heroin, alcohol, LSD, angel dust, Quaaludes and amphetamines. Next year, maybe anabolic steroids, too.

What, no caffeine?

Just as Rozelle could have predicted, the NFL Players Assn. wrapped itself in the Constitution and the banner of unionism, saying that such testing would be an invasion of privacy and a gross breach of an existing contract that runs through next season. The union also got ready to file a grievance with the NLRB to stymie any headway.

Thus, the football union protected Rozelle from himself.

Now, Rozelle can bask in praise for his tough stand, knowing there's no danger a player might actually be tested. No street corner in America has any greater need of a tough, caring, comprehensive drug program than the lockerroom of an NFL team. Players often seem chemically endangered from every direction. Yet, thanks to years of neglect, the problems have become diabolically hard to fix.

Now, Rozelle feels the enormous pressure of public outrage. The NFL should have addressed the issue of amphetamines 20 years ago, of steroids 15 years ago, of pain killers 10 years ago and cocaine five years ago. But it didn't. The TV ratings were high. The money at stake was enormous. It was so much easier for both labor and management to argue about economics instead of worrying about the players.

Now, Rozelle finds himself in an almost impossible situation. How do you solve decades of problems in one desperate act?

The answer is that you find a way to give the appearance that every problem is solved, or at least addressed, while actually dealing with none of your problems.

By lumping every abusable substance under the sun into one dramatic purge edict, Rozelle makes it seem that the NFL wants to deal with all its drug issues at once.

In fact, the real world doesn't work that way. The union won't buy such a unilateral solution, nor should it. Rozelle can claim he tried. Then all sides can start pointing fingers again. That's the price of neglect.

At least we don't have swallow these whitewashes at face value. At least we can look Ueberroth in the eye and tell him that if his sport's problem is solved, it's just been by pure luck. We can face down Rozelle and let him know that his drug-testing splash is mostly hot air.

For both Ueberroth and Rozelle, these are uneasy days. They've taken grave chances in trying to brush up their sport's images on the double as an angry public barks at their heels and demands the appearance of action.

What if Ueberroth is wrong about drug abuse being on the wane? What if all the scare rhetoric proves to be true, and cocaine and crack really do prove to be "an American plague" that's still peaking?

And what about Rozelle?

In the NFL, cocaine is just the tip of an ugly iceberg of drug misuse and abuse that often runs through a player's whole career and life. Football players have been shot up with xylocaine and wired on greenies and bloated on steroids like prize farm animals for far too many years. When will the NFL begin to face the long, mortifying and expensive process of cleaning up an entire sport?

Can we really ask Rozelle, or Ueberroth, for that matter, to magically wash their games clean? Is that the job of a commissioner?

The sad truth is that, at the moment, it's nobody's job.

Could anything be more depressing?

Perhaps only the prospect that things may have to get even worse before everyone involved with pro sports--owners, players, unions and commissioners--feel so endangered that they stop posing in public and start agreeing in private.

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