While the National Football League and National Basketball Association try to cope with the problems of illicit drug use by some players, professional tennis officials are hoping to avert a similar crisis.
Although there is no evidence of a problem yet, there is reason to believe one could exist. And the sport cannot afford to be caught unprepared.
"We don't have our head in the sand," says Earl (Butch) Buchholz, executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals. "The hottest topic in sports in America today is illegal drug use, especially cocaine, by professional athletes. We have to assume that we may have the problem as well one day."
Tennis (the fourth most watched sport on TV) is the most underregulated of the major sports. It is vulnerable. The top 25 or so players are among the highest-paid athletes anywhere, so they can afford expensive drugs.
Second, tennis is a jet-set sport. From the royal box at Wimbledon's Centre Court to Monte Carlo to New York City, professional tennis players ply their trade among the world's rich, beautiful and powerful.
Said one American player at this week's D.C. National Bank Tennis Classic, "In the circles that we travel, we could lay our hands on some cocaine in less than a day if we wanted. But I don't think or know for certain of any players using the stuff, especially on a day like today (92 degrees). Their nostrils would be running all day."
And how did he know about "runny noses?" He continued laughing, "It's become a little sick locker room joke that if a guy can't cut it out here in this hot muggy weather, then maybe he's on something."
Another factor is the large number of minors on the tour, especially in those cities where the men and women play together--London (Wimbledon), New York City (U.S. Open), Paris (French Open).
Everyone knows that parents travel with their 14- and 15-year-old daughters playing on the women's pro tennis tour. Now, it is not unusual for parents of 17- and 18-year-old boys to travel as well. One father told me, "I strongly believe in the 'ounce of prevention' theory. If half of what they say back home is going on in the school systems, then it sure as hell could be easier in professional athletics. Yes, I want to see my son play and win, but I frequently travel with him for my own peace of mind also."
Buchholz has quietly begun establishing procedures players can follow to receive counseling without publicity. But the question of drug testing is still unresolved.
I believe that random urinalysis tests should be considered to detect illegal drugs. Because tennis gets 80 cents of every dollar in player prize money from a sponsor, we have too much at stake--$18 million on the Volvo Grand Prix circuit and $8 million on the WCT circuit.
Furthermore, to be effective, the testing must be done right after a match. Eighteen to 24 hours after ingestion, a drug like cocaine leaves the body not as cocaine but as residue referred to as metabolites.
A pressing issue now is whether to make the testing procedure a precondition for entry onto the 1983 Volvo Grand Prix circuit. (The ATP has no formal voice on the WCT circuit rules.)
Robert Kain, agent for several players including Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert Lloyd, is noncommital. "We need to think it through," Kain said. "I'm against any player gaining an unfair advantage. But with so many young clients, our firm is constantly asked by parents if the tour is clean. We certainly don't want to invite any problems."
David Falk of the law firm Dell, Craighill, Fentree and Benton, which does my work and, and that of several NBA players, has a different view. "Postmatch tests miss the principal issue," Falk said. "Tennis or any sport should be concerned with controlling use of illegal drugs by professional stars in daily life--whether they derive an unfair advantage or not. A postmatch test doesn't solve enough of the problem and it is certainly an invasion of privacy that may not be counterbalanced enough by any deterrent effect."
Postmatch urine tests should be considered as an effective deterrent to drug use on the tennis tour. And if the only flak we get is from someone who thinks his personal freedom is at stake, let him consider the alternative: a full-fledged scandal.
The Men's Professional Tennis Council, of which I am a member, should seriously consider such a test as a precondition for entry on the 1983 Volvo Grand Prix circuit.