THE DAY AFTER the New England Patriots lost the Super Bowl, their coach, Raymond Berry, called a team meeting. It wasn't to talk about the game.

"He told me before he spoke to the team and he told them at the end of his remarks that he would not go through another season having to face the drug issues he had this year," Patriots general manager Patrick Sullivan told The Boston Globe.

Mr. Berry, a hero in New England after leading the Patriots to a conference championship, was disturbed by rumors that as many as a dozen team members were involved with illegal drugs. He told his players that unless they agreed to a voluntary testing program, he would resign. The team voted by a wide margin to undergo such tests, thus breaking ranks with every other team in the National Football League.

What the Patriots plan to do is this: any player found to be abusing drugs will be offered the choice of entering the team's drug program or being suspended. If a player successfully completes the program and then later is found to be back on drugs, he will be suspended for a year.

"Last January I had one very clear conviction: this football team has to be 100 percent clean," said Mr. Berry. "The point is there are obviously some young lives being ruined by drugs, and no one, neither the league nor the union, has the guts to do anything about it."

The union appears determined to do something, however, about the Patriots' action. It plans to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. "If they suspend for a year in Boston, what will they do in the next city?" said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "Shoot you? Kill your firstborn in the next city after that? We can't have this vigilante approach."

Mr. Upshaw may go on to list all the plagues of Egypt, but it won't make the union's arguments much more persuasive. Football's drug problem is not going away, and the players and their representatives need to do more about it than resist almost every effort made to find out who is on drugs.

Yesterday Robert Smith, a lineman with the Minnesota Vikings, was arrested in Louisiana and charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana with intent to distribute. Which reminds us of something that often gets overlooked when this business is reduced to a labor relations issue: what we're talking about here is illegal -- it's a crime. The consequences do not include slaughter of your firstborn, but there may well be handcuffs, preliminary hearings, trials and prison sentences. We'd bet most pro football players who are fooling around with drugs would prefer the sort of choice the Patriots are offering.