Drugs in Sports; Symptoms of a Deeper Malaise

By Padwe, Sandy | The Nation, September 27, 1986 | Go to article overview

Drugs in Sports; Symptoms of a Deeper Malaise


Padwe, Sandy, The Nation


Symptoms of a Deeper Malaise

For pure hypocrisy, there is little that can match the statement Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the National Football League, made at a press conference he called July 7 to announce the details of the N.F.L.'s drug testing program. "Our concern," he said, "is the health and welfare of the players--those taking drugs and those injured by those taking drugs."

When novelist Pat Toomay, a former defensive end for several N.F.L. teams, including the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders, heard what Rozelle had said, he laughed. "All of a sudden he's worried," said Toomay, who retired in 1980 after a ten-year career. "Why wasn't he worried twenty years ago? Fifteen years ago? Five? It's been going on forever. What about all those guys running around on amphetamines? Painkillers? Steroids? They just didn't start hurting people last season, you know."

The timing of Rozelle's press conference seemed cynical coming as it did when stories about the death from cocaine intoxication of Len Bias, the Maryland University basketball star, and of Don Rogers, the Cleveland Browns safety, were blanketing the front page, the sports page and the nightly national news telecasts. The league said that the timing was a coincidence and that it had been working on a drug testing program ever since revelations of drug use by six players on the New England Patriots soured the aftermath of Super Bowl XX.

Rozelle is no newcomer to the problem of drugs in the N.F.L. Former St. Louis Cardinals linebacker Dave Megyesy, now the western director of the N.F.L. Players Association, wrote about it in Out of Their League in 1970. North Dallas Forty, a novel by Pete Gent, a former receiver for the Cowboys and the New York Giants, remains the quintessential work on the subject of football and drugs.

In 1973, George Burman, a Washington Redskins center, was one of several players who detailed drug abuse, especially amphetamine usage, on the team, only to have his coach, George Allen, say: "I know we don't have a drug problem. I'm not worried about it." (Allen now chairs the President's Council on Physical Fitness.) Later that same year, Representative Harley Staggers and Senator Birch Bayh presided over hearings in Washington on drug abuse in sports. Professional football received plenty of attention, and in 1974 the N.F.L. found its flagship case with the San Diego Chargers. Rozelle fined the team's owners, general manager Harland Svare and eight players a total of $40,000 for violations of league rules on drugs. (Cocaine was not involved.) For years after, whenever someone suggested that the N.F.L. wasn't doing all it could about the problem, league officials would point to the Chargers' fines as proof of how touch they could be. But the fines had little effect on the players, who understood that the league's drug policy was basically cosmetic, aimed at placating public opinion. Drug use hardly changed, according to Toomay and several other players active at the time.

As long as the drugs involved in sports were only amphetamines, steroids, painkillers and a little marijuana here and there, and as long as the books being written about the subject were by dissidents such as Meggyesy and Gent--or, in baseball, Jim Bouton--the commissioners felt no discomfort. The same could be said of the directors of athletics at colleges and universities.

Stories of cocaine abuse moved the drug issue to another level. They outraged the public, made TV advertisers nervous and caught the interest of the sporting press. To a lot of editors, coke was a hotter, trendier drug than amphetamines or anabolic steroids. The use of the latter was limited to enhancing one's performance, and in the anything-goes world of athletic competition no one cares about how players excel, as long as they excel.

For years cocaine had been creeping into the sports world. Warren Jabali, who played for Denver in the Old American Basketball Association, told Newsday in 1973 that he had heard of cocaine dealers on professional basketball teams. …

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