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

September 23, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

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.

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