National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended four players, Pete Johnson and Ross Browner of the Cincinnati Bengals, E.J. Junior of the St. Louis Cardinals and Greg Stemrick of the New Orleans Saints, yesterday through the first four games of the season for their involvement with cocaine.
NFL spokesman Joe Browne said the suspensions mark the first time an NFL player has been suspended specifically for involvement with illegal drugs, although in the past players have been incarcerated following illegal-drug convictions.
All four players, who are suspended without pay, will be barred from training camp and practice sessions and will be denied use of team facilities, Rozelle said in a statement released by the NFL in New York. They will be permitted to apply for reinstatement after the fourth game of the 16-game regular season.
"Involvement with illegal drugs poses numerous risks to the integrity of professional football and the public's confidence in it . . . Such involvement may also give rise to pressures on players to alter their performance on the field in the interests of illegal gamblers," Rozelle said.
Gene Upshaw, NFLPA executive director, could not be reached for comment last night. But Mark Murphy, the union's player representative on the Washington Redskins, questioned whether the suspensions would have any deterrent effect. "Whether or not suspensions like this will scare players, I don't know," Murphy said. "It's against the law and they're still doing it now."
Murphy also said Rozelle's action went beyond NFLPA guidelines, which call for probation for first-time offenders. "He took a little stronger stand than we set forth in our policy," Murphy said. "But you have to do something about the problem. I think he had a lot of pressure on him from the owners to take a strong stand."
Two of the four players, Junior and Stemrick, were arrested on separate cocaine felony charges and were placed on probation after pleading guilty or no contest. Browner and Johnson were given immunity from prosecution in a federal drug case and testified to having purchased cocaine on several occasions from a drug dealer, Browner 12 to 15 times and Johnson approximately 15 times.
Regardless of whether a player is prosecuted or placed on probation, Rozelle said, the "NFL's priorities often are and must be different in degree from those of the authorities who enforce federal and state narcotic laws. The game itself can be honored or dishonored by its own participants. The obligations of personal conduct are not just owed to the league. They are owed as well to the players, the team, to every other NFL player and to the public on whose approval and support the game and the livlihood of all those associated with it ultimately depend."
Browne said the NFL will conduct a separate review of the cases of all players who become involved in illegal-drug prosecutions, including Washington Redskins running back Clarence Harmon, who is facing cocaine possession charges in Texarkana, Tex. Each case will be weighed individually, Browne said.
Harmon said last night, "Rozelle has got to do his part, whatever that is."
In announcing the suspensions, Rozelle said he is still committed to the NFL's policy of making treatment and rehabilitation available to players who seek it voluntarily, and he said such players whose drug problems have not involved them in the criminal justice system have enjoyed limited amnesty.
"But the medical-assistance program is not intended to relieve all NFL players of personal responsibility for illegal-drug involvement," Rozelle said. "The NFL cannot afford to condone or convey any indication that it condones illegal-drug involvement."
Bengals Coach Forrest Gregg called the suspensions "just something that had to be done," according to United Press International.
Linebacker Reggie Williams said the suspensions indicate Rozelle is "starting to play hard ball" with drug offenders. "It's bad for our team, but for the entire game, I guess it's good. You have to protect the integrity of the sport."
Gregg indicated the Bengals plan no further action against the players after the suspensions.
"I would certainly think the suspensions would deter other players from drug involvement," UPI quoted him as saying. "These suspensions mean these guys are going to give up four league games, which amounts to 25 percent of their pay."
Mike Brown, assistant general manager of the Bengals, said the NFL needs to take a tough approach against drug abuse by its players. "We've worked hard at the rehabilitation side of the problem. Now we should attack on other fronts, including sanctions. If that deters players, what could be better?" Brown told the Associated Press.
Johnson, a running back from Ohio State, is the Bengals' all-time leading rusher with 4,658 yards gained in seven NFL seasons. Browner, a defensive end from Notre Dame, holds the record for unassisted Super Bowl tackles with 10 in Super Bowl XVI.
Gregg said that Browner's spot will be filled by Glenn Collins and that Charles Alexander will be switched from halfback to starting fullback to replace Johnson. Archie Griffin will become the starting halfback.
Junior, a linebacker from Alabama, was a first-round draft pick for the Cardinals in 1981, and Stemrick, a cornerback from Colorado, was picked up by the Saints after being released by Houston.
In a statement released through the Cardinals' front office, Junior said Rozelle "made a decision in the best interests of the fans and the NFL. I accept that decision and look forward to returning to the football Cardinals." Team owner Bill Bidwill said the team "continues to support E.J. Junior . . . and looks forward to his return."
At the Saints' training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., Stemrick was described by teammate George Rogers as saying, "Good luck and I'll be back, hopefully," as he left yesterday, according to the Associated Press.
Since publication a year ago in Sports Illustrated of a first-person account of his involvement with cocaine by former Miami Dolphin defensive lineman Don Reese, the subject of illegal drug use has been a major controversy within the NFL and other sports, as well.
The program of limited amnesty for users who seek treatment voluntarily was incorporated into the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association reached after the players' strike last fall.
According to The New York Times, at least 42 professional athletes have sought treatment for alcoholism or drug dependency since 1977, and at least 23 have been convicted of drug- or alcohol-related crimes.
In announcing the suspensions yesterday, Rozelle acknowledged the special status enjoyed by NFL players. "NFL players occupy a unique position in the eyes of the public. They are objects of admiration and emulation by countless fans, particularly young people."