The NFL has gotten a small taste in recent weeks of what it's like to be Major League Baseball. And it hasn't been pleasant.
For more than a decade, those who run pro football have been able to sit back with a feeling of superiority and watch as baseball has moved from one self-destructive undertaking to another. Football's leaders reveled in their labor peace while baseball alienated its fans with an eight-month players' strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series.
Baseball spent years recovering, only to have the very on-the-field exploits that played the key role in winning back the public -- the great home-run chases on both sides of the turn of the century -- tainted by a steroid scandal. When the House Government Reform Committee used subpoenas to summon major league players and baseball's leaders to Capitol Hill this month, and lawmakers assailed them over the sport's steroid policies during a nationally televised hearing, the NFL was hailed by members of Congress as a pro league that had acted properly to legitimately attempt to rid its game of performance-enhancing drugs.
If NFL officials felt some smugness, they were entitled, it seemed. They oversee the nation's most popular and prosperous professional sports league, and part of the reason is that management and labor have forged a smooth working relationship that has kept the fans' focus on the field, not on boardroom developments around a collective-bargaining table, and won the public's confidence that the sport was doing all it could to be clean and steroid-free.
Suddenly, though, there are a few cracks showing in the NFL's fortress. When the sport's team owners gathered in picturesque Maui last week for the annual league meetings, there was ominous talk about the stalled negotiations with the players' union on an extension of the labor agreement. This week brought a report by "60 Minutes Wednesday" that three members of the Carolina Panthers had prescriptions for banned steroids from a South Carolina doctor filled within two weeks of playing in last year's Super Bowl.
The league isn't exactly in crisis mode. The calendar says it's not time to fret too much about the labor deal -- not yet, at least -- and NFL officials are standing by their steroid policy.
Still, these are concerns that are unusual by the NFL's recent standards, and privately some people in the sport say it's a time for the league's leaders to proceed cautiously. "As a league, we need to make some smart decisions and not mess up what we have here," an executive from one NFL team said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to draw the ire of the sport's leaders. "Compared to other sports, we don't have major problems. But we do have some issues that need to be dealt with wisely."
Previous sets of labor negotiations have gone so smoothly that it comes as a shock to some in the sport when the league and the union can't work out an extension of the collective bargaining agreement seamlessly. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw have forged a partnership in which they make major decisions together and always, it seems, find a way to keep the peace. Upshaw's style rankles those who have run baseball's combative players' union, who always have regarded the football players' union as being too passive. But Upshaw argues that he has served his membership well by helping to make the league so successful and ensuring that his players share in the wealth.
These negotiations are different, however. They come at a time when the owners of franchises in smaller markets worry that the sport's system for splitting revenues evenly among the teams has become outdated. Aggressive owners like the Washington Redskins' Daniel Snyder and the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones have found ways to maximize local revenues that don't have to be shared with other clubs, and football gradually has moved toward baseball's less-than-ideal model, with a clear division between "have" and "have-not" franchises. Old-guard owners say that the league was built on giving each team an equal slice of the pie, and the ever-wealthier clubs should share more so that football never reaches the point at which the Green Bay Packers are as unable to compete financially with the New York Giants as baseball's Milwaukee Brewers are with the New York Yankees.
Owners of the wealthy teams wonder why they should be penalized for selling and marketing well, and why they should have to subsidize those clubs that can't figure out how to run a business properly. Upshaw, meantime, is pushing for a wider scope of revenues to be included in the pool from which the players are paid; he has managed to get the league to buy into the concept that the salary cap should be based on a percentage of "total football revenues" instead of "designated gross revenues," but the two sides remain far apart in their notions of what the players' percentage should be. So this isn't business as usual. It is a proposed overhaul of the system that has helped to make the league so successful, and all of the snags that have arisen led Tagliabue to say in Hawaii that the negotiations were at a "dead end."
But the saber rattling is premature. The current collective bargaining agreement has two seasons remaining with the salary cap system in effect before there would be a season without a salary cap in 2007. Upshaw has said that the urgency for a deal soon will increase greatly, for he maintains that the salary cap never will return if the league plays a season without one. Football is facing some of the same issues now that baseball faced in 1994, when the owners tried to tackle their own revenue-sharing problems first and then attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to force a salary-cap-like system on the players. But football is not plagued by the deep mistrust between owners and players based on decades of conflict that has existed in baseball, and there still is time to find solutions to even daunting problems.
The steroid issue is one that NFL officials did not expect to be facing. They extol the virtues of a steroid policy that calls for random testing of players year-round and four-game suspensions without pay for first-time offenders. An average of about three players per season have been suspended under the policy, they say.
Panthers officials have said that none of their players tested positive for steroids. But Wednesday's report said that offensive tackle Todd Steussie filled a testosterone cream prescription by West Columbia, S.C., physician James Shortt 11 times over an eight-month period, center Jeff Mitchell filled a testosterone prescription seven times and punter Todd Sauerbrun obtained syringes and an injectable steroid, Stanozolol, as well as testosterone. Testosterone and Stanozolol are banned by the NFL.
The Panthers previously had acknowledged being subpoenaed by the Drug Enforcement Administration so that agents could contact players regarding an investigation of Shortt.
When four Oakland Raiders players tested positive for the designer steroid THG in 2003, the NFL reportedly went back and tested 2,000 urine samples and no others came back positive for THG. League officials seem hopeful that the Panthers case will prove to be a similarly isolated event.
Tagliabue has said that the NFL's steroid-testing system is good but not perfect. Those in football know that the science of drug cheating often is a step ahead of the science of catching drug cheaters. But they say they have done their best to rid their sport of steroids, and will continue to do so. League officials say they would like to test players for human growth hormone, which is banned by the NFL, but no reliable urine test exists yet. They say they plan to lower the threshold that constitutes a positive test for testosterone, pending approval by the union, to coincide with the recent adjustment made by the International Olympic Committee.
Robert White, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said this week that the committee has no immediate plans for a hearing on the NFL's steroid policy but there could be one in the future. "All sports are part of this discussion," White said.
The problems are not overwhelming at this point, but it is a time of unrest for the NFL. Tagliabue's tenure as commissioner probably is entering its final few years. How the labor and steroids stories unfold in the coming months could determine how he and Upshaw are remembered after they exit the sport.