If their concern is as genuine and deep as they claim, National Football League management and players will declare a truce in their money war and attack, together, with every ounce of energy and imagination, a growing problem and embarrassment: drugs.
Ed Garvey of the players association will dial 212-758-1500 and ask for Pete Rozelle. When the commissioner scurries to the phone, Garvey will say: " . . . our credibility as a sport is being threatened. So many wild charges are being thrown around in public that the only way to sift out the truth is a joint effort."
Rozelle will reply: "When and where can we meet?"
A goat will win the Kentucky Derby before such a seemingly obvious gesture by well-intended men takes place. Owners and players in all the major pro sports have been so obsessed with flogging each other for so long that they have mostly ignored a long-festering sore that hurts them all.
Dirty drug laundry is being aired in public again. A decade ago, the concern was over amphetamines and pain killers, how to get high for a game. Now the dilemma is how many get high between games. NFL wages might be tip money in other forms of entertainment, but they're enough for players to indulge in the major-league sin of cocaine.
Everyone is pubicly dismayed; neither the players nor management seem to want to take the first conciliatory step toward understanding how many are hooked and how to fight it.
An authority on drugs in sports said the NFL quietly has been active in this very matter since 1974, trying to create a detection system and providing safe and wise counsel for players seeking help.
To that, a players association official said: "We also have ways of helping guys with drug problems."
Why aren't those efforts combined?
Pride. Distrust. If the owners were all-world altruists, there would be no need for a union. A united player-owner attack on drugs never was more necessary. So much speculation; such little evidence.
The assistant director of security and drug abuse for the NFL, Charles S. Jackson, has estimated that 17 players are dependent on cocaine. He admitted it was "quite possible" that number could be closer to 50.
In the Sports Illustrated story that lanced the NFL cocaine ugliness, a weak-willed behemoth Don Reese said: "Nobody seems to take him (Jackson) seriously . . . He makes an (annual) appearance, and nobody sees or hears from him again for a year or so . . .
"The (Saints) players were in the streets at night, going from house to house, getting stuff. I got out Jackson's card. I called his number in New York and his secretary said he wasn't available at the moment 'but he'll call you right back.'
"He never did."
Jackson has since publicly disagreed, saying he is always available if a player needs help.
One day the reformed Carl Eller says 40 percent of the league is on cocaine; the next he says it's 15 percent. Maybe. Reese insists: "Just as it controlled me, it now controls and corrupts the game, because so many players are on it."
The drugs-in-sports expert cautions against hasty solutions for the trouble, that the quickest answer, urinalysis, is the best. It costs the International Olympic Committee about $2 million for two weeks of drug tests every four years, he said. And the safeguards to avoid false-positive mistakes would be difficult to establish.
Still, who has a better way?
The NFL's labor troubleshooter, Jack Donlan, said the collective bargaining agreement now in force allows the club to give urine tests.
It does not, said NFLPA staffer Brig Owens, who added: "They'd have a lot of problems with the players."
I don't understand why.
I would think the clean players, what we hope and presume to be the majority in the NFL, would be the first in line to grab a bottle and hustle for a private place. Better a little indignity than the indifference that makes so many guilty by innuendo. That the NFLPA fights urine tests so fiercely makes it the villain against league officials apparently willing to at least consider drastic action. It's frighteningly easy to imagine a game-fixing scheme tied to unimaginably expensive drugs; it's tough to see a more effective deterrent than periodic testing.
I have no less esteem for Edwin Moses because he endured urinalysis after bestriding the 400-meter hurdle field in Montreal in the '76 Olympics; Dorothy Hammill's still a darling. I assume that brief blot on glory is necessary to keep the Games from being won in Eastern European labs; I also realize an American gets caught now and then.
"We don't want to develop a police state," said Dallas Cowboys Coach Tom Landry, speaking out against urinalysis. But the Cowboys' vice president for personnel development, Gil Brandt, said the team did a urinalysis on all its rookies two years ago and plans similar tests this season.
Tom, Gil's is the office next to the scouting files.
Amphetamine and steroid use in the NFL is said to be down dramatically from the early '70s. This was due in large part to game films, players seeing that they actually were being hindered rather than helped by drugs in games. Perhaps something less humiliating than urinalysis can be devised for cocaine.
Reese's tale was not the most depressing Sports Illustrated published. A letter two issues later included: "It's hard to believe that high school athletes use drugs like the pros, but some do. Before games and during halftime, cocaine and speed are used . . . I know; I've seen it."