On the cleat-pocked playing field during the final minutes of another two-a-day workout, few football players carried their heads high. These were the New Orleans Saints, in late summer practice at their training camp. With 15 consecutive losing seasons and another pending, they are the rattail of professional football.
But they are winsome nevertheless. The lads have forsworn drugs.
No more cocaine for me, says the newly clean George Rogers. Last season, Rogers' legs whisked him to NFL ground-gaining records, while his coke intake was taking him to new zonkouts of drug highs. A former Saint, Don Reese, wrote in Sports Illustrated in June that two seasons ago "players snorted coke in the locker room before games and during halftime." Cocaine, said Reese, "can be found in quantity throughout the NFL . . . it now controls and corrupts the game."
As another long and lucrative season (barring a strike) is underway, and drugball threatens to replace football, league officials are running hard to the outside to convince the public that the problem is under control. The Xs and Os of the game plan include encouraging players to enroll in team-sponsored detoxification programs. Carl Eller, a former Minnesota Viking star who is now off drugs, has been visiting the training camps to counsel the players.
But what evidence is there that the fans care one way or another? The well-being of the players seems the last concern of people who follow football. Fans see them as--and demand that they be -- combatants in violence, not stylists in athletics. The bashing and mashing has long been sustained by pills and painkillers. The difference now is that legal drugs have been replaced by illegal ones.
It isn't a coincidence that football players are heavy drug users. Cocaine provides an escape, and in football there is plenty to escape from. The players know that their sport is excessively punishing, inhuman and personally unsatisfying. The fans remember Vince Lombardi for his "winning is everything" gibberish, but Lombardi said something else: Football is "a game that requires the constant conjuring of animosity." What better way to survive the sick notion that your opponent must be a hate-object than with a snort of coke?
Up close on the sidelines of the training-camp scrimmage, the terror of football can be seen. Bodies are lumpy with surgery scars. Legs, arms and spines carry embossings of past pain when bone and cartilage were destroyed. Already a touted Saint quarterback is out for the season with torn ligaments.
On television the players, their bodies bulked under padding, look like heavy-boned toughs who gargle with Pennzoil. But a few feet away, the camouflage vanishes. They are wounded and wary men who know that the average carcass among them lasts less than five years in the pros. During the short time that they are on a roster, the players are either recovering from an injury or wondering what the next one will be.
Drugs are involved here, too. When Mercury Morris, a former Miami Dolphin star, was arrested in late August on cocaine charges, he explained he used the drug to ease the pains of an old injury.
The coke-as-medicine argument is likely to draw snickers in a courtroom. But the judicial scene is as removed from the brutality of the football field as even the seats of the stadium. The raw percussiveness of the hitting is not felt in the gut by the fans, many of whom bring to the game their own drug -- flasked alcohol.
After one of the Saints' workouts, I talked with the coach, Bum Phillips. A Texan with a kindly manner, Coach Bum is abreast of the times. He didn't speculate on fan reaction to the drug culture within football, but he himself, he insisted, was taking no hard line: "Twenty years ago if it was your child who was involved in drugs you might have kicked him out of the house. Today you try to help him. Everybody can make a mistake. We have to help them."
As a rehabilitation counselor, Phillips has a team that can absorb all of his sympathies. The entire league can. The trouble is, Phillips is too intelligent and humane for his sport. As are his charges who play it, on drugs or off.