It is summer and snow is falling in the National Football League.
In the last six weeks, revelations about the use of cocaine--snow, blow, toot--among football players have been piling up like snowdrifts. Twelve days before the contract between the players association and the owners will expire, 16 days before the Redskins open training camp, many people in the NFL are answering questions about drugs, how serious a problem there is and what to do about it.
The most difficult question is this: What will the impact of the allegations be on the sport, its image, its lagging contract negotiations, its television ratings, its betting public, its relations with the press?
"What it does can't be measured now," Jim Kensil, the president of the New York Jets, said. "It's like asking, 'How good was your draft?' I'll tell you in two years."
In the meantime, the allegations and the stories accumulate. In a story in the June 14 issue of Sports Illustrated, former player Don Reese said the drug "controls and corrupts the game." Although many players interviewed objected to the fact that Reese named names, one of those named, Chuck Muncie of the San Diego Chargers, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he had bought cocaine from former player Mike Strachan. Strachan was indicted May 21, and again on June 6, on one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and 11 counts of distribution. His trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 30.
There have been published but unconfirmed reports that George Rogers, rookie running back for the Saints and the leading rusher in the NFL last year, has told a federal grand jury in New Orleans investigating drug use on the Saints that he spent $10,000 on the drug, which he reportedly said he bought from Strachan, last season.
Traces of cocaine or other illegal drugs allegedly were found in the urine of nine of 150 college football players tested at a tryout camp held under the auspices of the United Scouting Combine.
"Like a lot of other people, I'm pretty fed up, but I'm not surprised," said Jack Lambert, linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Some players, he says, "are spoiled little brats who have never grown up, live in a sort of a dream world. They're given special privileges, treated like royalty since the first day they ran for four touchdowns. It's the fans, television, your (the press') fault. We just keep hearing what great guys they are and some start to believe it.
"That, in conjunction with so much money, guys get swelled up and full of self-importance . . . so many of the types you're dealing with think they're above everybody, even the law . . . What should be done? As far as I'm concerned, if you've got a problem, you should get yourself treated and be given a second chance. If some of the stories are true, and guys are actually selling, they ought be treated like the criminals they are. They should get the hell out of the league because they are detrimental to the league and to society."
In interviews last week with more than 20 players, league and club officials, union representatives and others involved with the sport--agents, odds makers and television executives--many issues and questions were raised:
* Some players say the problem has been blown out of proportion and worry that they will be deemed guilty by association.
* Many players assert that the emergence of the stories during contract negotiations is no coincidence and wonder how it will affect the players' bargaining position.
* Players, agents and officials wonder whether this will become a witch hunt and exacerbate already strained relations with the media.
* Players and officials agree there will be increasing pressure on the players to submit to urinalysis for the purpose of drug detection.
* Although some team officials have shown increased willingness to take steps to help players in need, Charles S. Jackson, the league's assistant director of security and drug abuse, says the old punitive attitudes in the league about drug abuse are still "impregnated" in players' minds.
* Although players were divided about Jackson's effectiveness, some say confidentiality is the problem, not Jackson, and they advocate an independent drug program.
* The consensus is no one really knows how pervasive the problem is in the NFL, whether the incidence of drug abuse is merely reflective of society in general, or greater; whether, as agent Greg Lustig put it, "there truly is a problem or whether it's just a fact of life."
Numbers and percentages are being bandied about willy-nilly. It is difficult to know which, if any, are reliable. There are few hard, cold facts. Don Weiss, the executive director of the NFL, says in the last two weeks the NFL has become aware of about 12 additional players who have sought rehabilitation for drug problems. Previously, the reported number was 17. Because the clubs have no obligation to report such cases to the league, Weiss said, officials have no idea how many others may have sought such help.
Jackson says it is possible that 40 to 50 players have "a chemical dependency" on the drug and that hundreds of players have had some experience with some chemical substances, including cocaine, marijuana and pills. He calls it a pessimistic appraisal.
According to retired defensive lineman Carl Eller, a former cocaine user, now a consultant to the league, "probably 40 percent, maybe 50 percent of the players in the NFL have experimented with cocaine and maybe 15 to 20 percent are in the problem area. That may be a pessimistic view, but because I am a former user I tend to be a pessimist."
Players interviewed at random found these figures hard to believe and scoffed at the notion that the percentage of users is higher than in groups of other affluent professionals. Harvey Martin, defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, said, "The only drugs I see in the NFL are the ones they give you when your knee hurts . . . Tony Dorsett and I were saying after we read the article, 'He (Reese) didn't go to a training camp with Tom Landry. He didn't go to Thousand Oaks and stay out partying all night.' "
Redskins running back Joe Washington echoed the sentiments of many of those interviewed when he said, "Anything an athlete does is blown out of proportion . . . I really find it hard to believe that almost half a team would be using. That's off the wall."
Eller said: "I think the problem is much worse than it was 10 years ago. We have kept pace with society, if not gone faster than society."
Art Modell, president of the Cleveland Browns, agreed: "There is no question in my mind we are facing a problem more serious than society at large. The average player comes off the campus not very streetwise, not very sophisticated in worldly ways. He's impressionable and he's got money. He's an easy target because of those factors. I think he personifies a societal problem but it is magnified because he's a professional athlete.
"There's a problem here on the Browns. It is not epidemic. We do have some problems. I have institutionalized three players in recent months, three who came to me for help. I consider addiction a disease. We're here to help, not to punish. . . Two are on their way to full recovery."
Weiss says the NFL is not prepared at this time to say what measures ought to be taken. But it seems clear that there will be a push for mandatory urinalysis. "I believe the commissioner has stated he believes it would be helpful," Weiss said.
Some league officials, including Chuck Sullivan, executive vice president of the New England Patriots and chairman of the executive committee of the NFL Management Council, maintain the clubs have the right to perform such tests under the current contract. The NFLPA, which adamantly opposes the idea, says there is no such right.
"If they want to do it, I'll go along as long as Chuck Noll is first in line and Pete Rozelle is right up there," Lambert said. "It's an invasion of my constitutional rights."
Other measures have been taken or suggested. Modell says he has hired a physician who specializes in chemically dependent patients to be available to his players 24 hours a day. Sullivan recently terminated the employment of an alcohol treatment expert because, he said, the team did not have enough of a problem to warrant his services. Sullivan says he would hire a drug expert if he felt the team needed one, but, at this point, it does not.
Reese criticized the NFL program under Jackson, saying that "nobody seems to take him seriously." Some players, such as Mark Murphy, the player representative of the Redskins, agreed. "It's like a comedy routine," he said.
Linebacker Rich Milot said, "He (Jackson) is a good speaker. I don't think anyone takes it seriously because he says the same things every year. I don't think he changes anybody's minds."
Bert Jones, quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, said, "They listen to him. I don't think by any stretch of the imagination he's a joke."
But most of the players agreed that Jackson is not the issue. More important, they say, is the question of confidentiality and whether players are inhibited in seeking help. "I don't think it (the program) is in the right hands because it's in the hands of the owners," said Lynn Swann, wide receiver of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I don't know if players believe they'll get help and the owners won't find out about it. It may be totally confidential, but is it really? It's a matter of questioning."
Murphy said, "At minicamp, Coach (Joe) Gibbs said, 'If you have a problem just come up and we'll take care of it.' I respect him for bringing it up. But no one wants to go to their head coach and say, 'I have a drug problem.' "
Swann and Murphy believe that the best alternative is an independent program, "funded by both sides, that has nothing to do with the politics of football," Swann said.
Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann wonders if even an independent program can be kept totally confidential. "I don't care if you pick a hospital in Timbuktu and take 18 planes to get there," he said. "They'll know exactly what time you arrived."
There is some concern, as Washington said, whether the league ought to be in the business of "prying and sneaking." The players are adults, he said, and "these guys (league officials) are not baby sitters."
But Modell is concerned enough that he is in the process of instituting a surveillance program to "keep undesirables away from players. This does not mean spying on players. I want to be clear about that. I want to be sure that those who tempt them are kept away."
Harvey Martin takes the opposite approach: "I don't think they ought to do a damn thing," he said. "I think they ought to let it blow over . . .The best way to show faith in the players is to say, 'Screw Don Reese, he's no football player, my team's not like that,' and think about getting to L.A."
But it's a long way to the Super Bowl in Los Angeles. The timing of the stories has made some players suspicious. They do not believe it is a coincidence that the issue surfaced during contract negotiations, and point out it has happened before. "I'm not saying it's a campaign by the owners," Milot said. "But, yeah, I do feel deep down that's what it is."
"What it is designed to do is take attention off the collective bargaining and put it on drugs in the NFL," said Brig Owens, special assistant to NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey.
Weiss terms these suggestions "absurd."
Regardless of the source, the allegations could "weaken the support we're going to get from the public," said Robin Cole, linebacker for the Steelers. "The average person thinks we're out there just getting a whole lot of money and blowing it on drugs. They read this stuff and believe it and say, 'What the heck, I'm with the owners.' "
Some people familiar with sports negotiations say that the adverse publicity will not hurt the players in negotiations unless it weakens the players' support for the union; it could make the players' resolve stronger if they become angry enough. Washington thinks the issue hurts both sides equally, "the owners because people say they are tolerating it, the players because they're doing it."
One way or another, the issue has created a public relations problem for the league. No one, including Neal Pilson, president of CBS Sports, believes that it will have an impact on the ratings. No one, including Bob Martin, a Las Vegas odds maker who sets a widely used line on NFL games, believes that bettors will be scared off. Martin says the idea that a player with a chemical dependency would try to throw a game in exchange for drugs "is far-fetched but possible."
Although Jackson says a player in need could be vulnerable, Lambert does not think it is feasible. Players like Theismann and Lambert, who care about the image of the game, and players who are active in the community say they are more concerned about children who would be vulnerable to the suggestion that if their heroes do drugs, they can, too. "I'm angry," Lambert said. "I just had a football camp where I had to convince the kids that not all players use drugs. It's embarrassing."
It could become worse than that. "I would hate to see the NFL and society go on a witch hunt," Lustig said.
Though it probably has not reached those proportions, it probably is true that "there are 50 major metropolitan newspapers saying (to their reporters), 'Why don't you have this story?' " Kensil said. "The media is caught in reproducing the story and that's what makes it a 'mushrooming scandal.' "
That also makes for potentially strained relations between the press and the players. "I've been getting calls every day, asking, 'What, when, who, and how?' " Cole said. "They say, 'You don't have to give me anybody's name.' They are playing with the players' intelligence."
"If you push it," Swann said, "people are going to get irritated."
"If anything decent comes out of this," Theismann said, "it is that it will make the NFL aware there is a problem and they can't keep sweeping it under the carpet."
To focus only on the cocaine problem, because it is the "in" drug, and ignore the fact that players drink would be a mistake, Lustig says. "What's the difference between drinking a case of beer a day or doing coke once or twice a week?" he said. "I'm not sure how prevalent coke is. But I think one drug or another is very prevalent."
Not sweeping it under the carpet also means coming to grips with the underlying causes for whatever problems the league may have. Lustig, who represents 75 players, says he knows very few who experience natural highs. "Socially, they seem to need some stimulant," he said. "Basically you are dealing with people who are in a business that suppresses individuality. Because of the amount of time spent in practice, they haven't developed the social graces. Ninety percent of their life is governed for them."
Why then would they need a stimulant? "As a confidence builder, as a means of recapturing what they have on the field off the field," he said.
And they have very little time to do it. "If you're 280 pounds and you want to get drunk quickly, you don't drink, you guzzle. Drugs, too, are an immediate quick thing. The system itself, in essence, creates the atmosphere which gives rise to the problem.