Pete Rozelle, National Football League commissioner, said yesterday his decision to suspend four players for the first four games of the 1983 season because of their involvement with cocaine represents no shift in NFL policy.
"The threat of suspension has always been there. It was just the circumstances," said Rozelle by telephone from his office in New York. All along, he said, players have been warned that illegal drug use could result in suspension from the NFL, and Monday's suspensions were the only logical extension of longstanding NFL policy.
Players suspended Monday were running back Pete Johnson and defensive end Ross Browner of the Cincinnati Bengals, linebacker E.J. Junior of the St. Louis Cardinals and cornerback Greg Stemrick of the New Orleans Saints. Junior and Stemrick were convicted of cocaine possession while Johnson and Browner testified in court after having been granted immunity from prosecution they had purchased cocaine from a drug dealer.
Rozelle said yesterday the NFL will continue its program of making treatment and rehabilitation available on a confidential basis to players who seek it voluntarily. "I don't even know the names of the players who have been in that program," he said.
But he said players who become involved in criminal prosecutions will be investigated by the NFL and may be subject to discipline by the commissioner's office once the criminal case has been resolved. "Each case will be judged on an individual basis," Rozelle said. Washington Redskins running back Clarence Harmon, facing indictment on charges of possession of cocaine in Texarkana, Tex., represents one such case.
Reaction in the NFL yesterday was generally supportive of Rozelle's policy on the suspensions, although Rozelle said he did not check with owners, coaches or general managers before reaching his decision.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, released a prepared statement saying the union believes the proper approach to the NFL's drug problems "combines treatment of the disease . . . with predictable, even-handed discipline by the commissioner."
Upshaw, who was driving from his home in California to Washington yesterday, did not say specifically whether he agreed with Rozelle's decision to suspend the players. "I met with Rozelle to discuss our concern and to present the union's policy on the matter . . . " said Upshaw. "I believe that Rozelle listened to how the players in the league feel about this problem."
Bum Phillips, coach of the New Orleans Saints, said he had no argument with Rozelle's decision.
Each player will lose nearly $3,350 in training camp and preseason game pay, plus regular-season pay: reportedly for Browner $35,225, Johnson $34,600, Junior $28,350 and Stemrick $23,350.