Drug rules: positive results? Leagues defend plans, but critics see them as weak, ineffective


Doug Allen doesn't view the National Football League's drug policy as a deterrent so much as a conscience for its potential offenders.

"I think it's intended to be something that reminds the people who need to be reminded that they have a responsibility to themselves, their teammates and their sport," said Allen, the assistant executive director of the the NFL Players Association. "But like any business, people do make mistakes."

The mistake Bam Morris made -- testing positive for alcohol earlier this year -- cost the Ravens' running back a suspension for the team's first four games this season and a quarter of his reported $1 million salary.

It was considered a second offense for Morris, whose first four-game suspension came at the beginning of last season, after he was arrested the previous March by police in Texas for possession of marijuana and cocaine. Police found six pounds of marijuana and 1 1/2 grams of cocaine in the trunk of his car.

Morris returned to the practice field yesterday and will begin regular competition Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, as the latest NFL player to serve a prescribed sentence imposed through what Allen calls "the most effective [drug] policy in professional sports."

Greg Aiello, the NFL's vice president for public relations, goes one step further.

"We take the position that we have the most comprehensive drug policy in sports," he said. "I disagree with those who don't believe there's a strong deterrent. We have testing, fines and suspensions. The policy has gone a long way in reducing the number of players who test positive."

According to Aiello, the number has dropped from an average of 20 cases a year in the late 1980s to 10 in each of the last two years and eight so far this year. Aiello is also quick to point out that each figure represents a small percentage of the league's 1,700 players.

By announcing the suspensions, Aiello said, "We create some of our own bad news. It's the price we pay for having a strong policy."

But considering the problems Morris and other NFL players have had adhering to it -- including Ravens teammate and former Maryland star Larry Webster, who has also been suspended twice during his career, including all of last season -- there are some who wonder whether that confidence is well-founded.

And whether any of the existing drug policies covering the four professional sports leagues work.

"They haven't been that effective in stopping the problem," said Don McPherson, a former NFL quarterback who now works for the Center for Study of Sports in Society. "In all sports, they've been selective about penalizing players."

McPherson and others believe that there is too much risk for professional teams to effectively police their players, in particular their stars.

"The penalties are not stiff enough, because the only real penalty would be expulsion," said McPherson, who played three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and four more years in the Canadian Football League. "How do you deal with the franchise players who test positive?"

Tony Agnone, a Baltimore-based agent who represents 45 professional football players, said the problem won't go away.

"There's always going to be slippage," said Agnone, who represented Webster before his second suspension. "These people [NFL management] are not in the drug enforcement business. The interest is to try to maintain the integrity of the league.

"Most of the stories [about why players are being suspended] are lies and spin control. I understand that. By saying that a player was suspended for drinking a beer, they scare the younger guys into thinking they can't get caught doing anything."

As coach of the Cleveland Browns in the early 1980s, Sam Rutigliano worked with owner Art Modell and two veteran players, Paul Warfield and Calvin Hill, to form "The Inner Circle," a group that helped counsel players in trouble with drugs.

Rutigliano, now the coach at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., said: "The NFL is the worst atmosphere to be in if you have a problem. It's like putting an alcoholic to work in a wine factory. The problem is that there's no death penalty. If you or I have this kind of problem, we'd probably get fired from our jobs. They can't."

When former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle tried to get random testing instituted in the mid-1980s, he was blocked by the NFL Players Association, which cited a violation of a player's right to privacy. But the rampant and highly publicized use of steroids brought random testing for those performance-enhancing drugs in 1990.

The current NFL policy grew out of the collective-bargaining agreement between the league and its players association that was reached in 1993. At the time, both sides agreed to discuss revising a policy that didn't include any penalties for drunken driving. The new policy went into effect for the 1995 season.

"We're always looking for ways to improve it," said Allen, a former NFL player. "Typically, players don't seek treatment on their own before a lot has gone wrong with their lives. In professional football, the interest is to intervene long before that happens."

According to the NFL policy, all players are tested once between May 1 and Aug. 20 and all free agents and rookies can be tested before they sign a contract.

Also, a team and a player may agree to unannounced testing if the team has a reasonable basis for requesting such an agreement.

The other three major sports leagues have been moving at a much slower pace when it comes to their drug policies.

NBA: No marijuana tests

The National Basketball Association has had drug testing since 1983, following the admission by then Washington Bullets guard John Lucas to cocaine, heroin and alcohol addiction, but its most recent collective-bargaining agreement doesn't include any testing or punishment for marijuana.

The only players who face random testing who don't have known drug problem are rookies. Veterans and rookies alike who come forward and admit a problem the first time can get treatment at the team's expense. A second admission will result in a suspension.

According to the NBA's policy, the league employs an independent expert in the field of drug abuse detection who can authorize testing, and the league can then test a player randomly four times over a six-week period. The penalty for a positive test carries a two-year suspension, after which time the player can apply for reinstatement.

But the omission of any testing for marijuana remains a sticking point.

"From a former player's standpoint, my concern would be if there were a fair testing system for marijuana, and if the information received through testing would not be used adversely against the player," said Bob Dandridge, formerly of the Bullets and now director of player programs for the NBA.

"I don't think being tested for marijuana is disagreeable, but that the information could be used to hurt a player."

Baseball: Testing limited

Major League Baseball tests any player who admits to a drug offense or, because of probable cause, is found guilty through an investigation.

The recent case involving Tony Phillips of the Anaheim Angels raised questions about the clarity of the policy, which has resulted in the suspension of nearly 40 players over the last 15 years, including 21 in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh Pirates' cocaine-scandal trial in 1986.

After being arrested last month at a cheap hotel near his team's ballpark for buying $30 worth of crack, Phillips spent the next two weeks in limbo. He dressed for a game, then was examined by doctors brought in by the commissioner's office and was deemed ready to play.

But after refusing to go to a drug treatment program, he was suspended by the team after pressure from its parent company, Disney. That's when the players association became involved, and got Phillips reinstated because he was a first-time offender.

"I'm not going to be a pawn in this situation," Phillips said shortly after being reinstated. "I'm not going to be anybody's whipping boy, whether it's the players association or Disney."

Louis Melendez, associate counsel for Major League Baseball's Players Relations Committee, said in an interview last week that rTC Disney's attempt to get involved in penalizing Phillips was quashed because the commissioner's office and the players association don't allow outside intervention.

Though it has not been part of any collective-bargaining agreements, Melendez considers it a joint policy in that both sides have supported it. No player has been suspended since then New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden was banned first for 60 days and later for the 1995 season after repeated positive drug tests.

"We have dealt with them [the players association] as if it were [a joint policy]," Melendez said. "This is one of the few areas where we've been able to work with them."

NHL: No mandatory tests

The National Hockey League didn't have a drug policy in place until last year. It now has a four-stage process.

"In a general sense, our program is not significantly different than other similar programs," said Robert Goodenow, executive director of the NHL Players Association. "The program is progressive in nature and is focused on helping players and their family members. It is not based on punishment, but rather education and rehabilitation."

League policies

The basic rules governing substance abuse in the four major pro sports:

NFL: All players are tested once a year. A second positive test results in a four-game suspension. A third positive test results in a year's suspension, with reinstatement up to the commissioner.

NBA: Each rookie is tested three times in his first season. A positive test results in suspension until the second season. A second admission of drug use results in suspension during the time of treatment. Players with known drug problems are randomly tested; a positive test results in a two-year suspension.

Major League Baseball: Those with known drug problems are tested. A second positive test usually results in a 60-day suspension. A third offense could result in a one-year suspension.

NHL: A four-stage process for monitoring and disciplining players begins with treatment but no penalty and goes up to a one-year suspension. There is no mandatory testing, but testing is a part of treatment and follow-up care.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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