"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." --NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle

The pedestal has been quivering for years. Sports never has been more than life with a scoreboard, its strongest players as weak as you and I in many ways. For NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to say that would undermine the second NFL selling priority: mystique. For him not to admit it, by suspending four players for their involvement with cocaine, would have jeopardized what the league hypes most: integrity.

The reaction to Rozelle's punishment of Pete Johnson and Ross Browner of the Bengals, E.J. Junior of the Cardinals and Greg Stemrick of the Saints has been as encouraging as it has been odd. The NFL Players Association actually agreed with it, if not in the specifics at least in the notion that something severe had to be done.

Undoubtedly, this means that the players and owners will be working toward meaningful drug- and alcohol-abuse policy. Short term and long range.

Hallelujah!

Nobody rational and impartial is growling too loudly over whether Rozelle's action was too harsh or too soft. That's because nobody is quite sure where to draw the line between compassion and a good swift kick below the lower-back pad. Cooperation is the only way to attack the problem.

Now that the league has admitted one exists.

The NFL always has offered more characters than character. That's one of its charms. Anyone offended by oversized adolescents who rather enjoy controlled violence had better escape to chess or lawn bowling. Coaches might talk about choir-boy virtues, but they know bouncers get the job done best.

So a fellow who risks being crippled each Sunday is likely to be intrigued by the sort of sophisticated and illegal fun he suddenly can afford. Four-game suspensions are not going to stop players from drugs any more than a 10-yard penalty stops them from holding.

But sports need strict and well-defined rules, on and off the field.

Whether Rozelle and Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn are right or wrong in their drug decisions is not the significant point. What they have done is a reasonable starting point. How many years have players been preached to about the negative effects of drug and alcohol abuse, to themselves and their profession?

Long enough, certainly, for them to know by now that tolerance has its limits.

Rozelle acted after consulting with Gene Upshaw, NFL Players Association executive director; the players assume any sort of firm and lasting policy will be with their advice and consent.

"One of the issues now," said Mark Murphy, Redskins' player representative, "is that these (suspended) guys are going to be outside football for about eight weeks. There's been no mention of rehabilitation. And how do you deal with the entire question? Suspend everybody?

"What's necessary is a really comprehensive first-quality education program. At the high school and college level, in addition to the pros. That and a quality rehabilitation program. Deterrents are fine. But guys who've been doing all this have known they were breaking the law."

NFL integrity often has been unevenly defined and enforced, management being anxious to punish players for sins owners also have committed. And with even less respect for their sport. Lately, Rozelle has shown a heart as well as a firm hand.

The players seem to appreciate that.

How else to interpret those several hundred words the NFLPA issued under Upshaw's name yesterday?

The statement called for "predictable even-handed discipline by the commissioner," as well as "counseling and treatment concurrent with the punishment" . . .

"Any player who seeks and receives treatment for chemical dependency and who is not involved in a criminal investigation is entitled to confidential treatment without discipline under terms of the collective bargaining agreement."

The predictable even-handed discipline has yet to be determined.

Clarence Harmon surely is troubled even more now. But the Redskins' reserve runner may well have been out of the league already had his drug arrest come a few years earlier. Then Rozelle and the teams were inclined to presume a man guilty before a court did.

Harmon has built a solid base of goodwill over the years. Coaches and league officials are more enlightened. Correctly, he is being given a chance to keep his job until a Texas hearing takes place.

Part of that predictable and even-handed discipline ought to include what the players have resisted intently over the years: urinalysis.

Let's carry integrity even closer to the end zone. Let's make it mandatory for big ol' linebackers to take a postgame urine test, same as the Olympics require of dainty girl gymnasts. Yes, it's demeaning and embarrassing; it's also necessary, now more than ever.

And the Murphys and other clean livers who object actually are helping the abusers. Spot checks might even hasten those with drug problems into the sort of voluntary treatment everyone concerned about players and sports wants.

"The people we respect most say spot checks aren't the answer, long term," Murphy said.

Long term?

Must we settle for that?

Let's have it both ways: now and later.