Some stories you never write. Don Reese was one of those. He sold cocaine and wound up in jail for a year. Later he did a first-person story for Sports Illustrated. He said the National Football League had a cocaine crisis. That story landed him back in jail for probation violations. After the sentencing, I spoke to Reese by phone.
It seemed to me he had done the NFL a favor. Whenever cokeheads popped up around the league, everyone denied there was a problem. The league passed it off as society's problem, only mirrored by professional football players. Surely, I thought, a frightening confession (and accusation, for Reese named names of NFL stars using coke) in a national sports magazine by a former Miami Dolphin would move the NFL to deal sternly with the cocaine epidemic.
I asked Reese if he agreed with that.
"No, no way. The NFL has nothing to do with what's going on."
"Drugs are a message from God," Reese said, "and what's going on now is the first stages of Armageddon. Ain't nothing Pete Rozelle can do about it."
Reese preached this sermon so passionately, at such length, that it seemed the irrational ravings of a man gone over the edge. So that story never was written. I bring it up now only because its very irrationality makes as much sense as anything else going on in the NFL's coke wars. Ain't nothing Pete Rozelle can do about it, maybe, but at least the NFL commissioner and his teams now are trying their damndest.
Tony Peters' arrest is startling news in Washington, where we came to know him as an accommodating man with a smile for everyone, but across the country the story will be only another in the blizzard of cocaine charges that have touched winners and losers, tackles and running backs, blacks and whites, stars and anonymities.
"I'm just sick for Tony's family," said Jack Kent Cooke, the Redskins owner who last winter knocked on the wood of a library table when a reporter asked if Cooke were worried that the NFL drug problems would touch his team. "I pray not, and I think not, but who can say?"
If guilty as charged, Peters was part of a ring selling cocaine. The charge is that he acted as an agent bringing buyer and seller together. Only last spring he signed a new four-year contract with the Redskins paying him $185,000 for this season and $1 million before the deal expired. For $3,000, according to federal charges filed, Peters arranged the sale of cocaine.
An ugly question: if Peters helped sell cocaine, did he sell it to his Super Bowl teammates?
"To the best of my knowledge, no others whatsoever," Cooke said.
Clarence Harmon, a Redskins running back, has been charged in an unrelated case with possession of cocaine. He is Peters' training camp roommate. If both are convicted, it is likely they will be suspended by Rozelle, who may not think this is Armageddon but now knows it is more than just a mirror of real life.
The commissioner's recent suspension of four players convicted on cocaine charges is a strong step. The psychological evidence is that cocaine users, once they are dependent on the drug, will not seek out help voluntarily. They have lost that control. While it is a kindly thing for the NFL to offer confidential counseling and treatment, the mounting evidence is that such kindnesses go unappreciated. The epidemic rages.
America's Team in Dallas, the Super Bowl champions in Washington, the ragtag Saints, downtrodden Cardinals, Oilers, 49ers, Dolphins--all of them and more have been touched by cocaine, the illegal drug of the affluent, the killer of John Belushi, the lever that turned John DeLorean's life upside down. "At West Coast parties," a Washington businessman said, "cocaine is the chic thing to do. Businessmen, movie stars, famous names in all lines. If you don't use it, you're square."
The Cleveland Browns, at Coach Sam Rutigliano's insistence, have confronted the cocaine issue. If Rutigliano senses a drug problem in a player, he straight out asks about it. The player can join a confidential group of Browns (eight players have joined) that meets every Monday with Rutigliano and professional counselors.
"A bunch of guys are fighting for their lives and winning," Rutigliano told Newsweek's Pete Axthelm.
Ain't nothing Pete Rozelle can do about it, Don Reese said. Maybe not. The NFL has no Gestapo to control the private lives of 1,500 athletes, many of them immature because the world gave them a free ride, many suddenly affluent, many of them accidents hurrying to happen. But the NFL certainly can enforce sanctions against players whose off-the-field conduct damages the public credibility of its product.
Rozelle has served notice, with the recent suspensions, that the NFL believes it is time to be stern as well as kindly. The suspensions cost each man one-fourth of his annual salary (in Ross Browner's case, that is $35,225).
Some NFL officials argued that the four convicted players should be suspended for the entire season. Perhaps fearing litigation should he go that far with no precedent, Rozelle chose a step that though cautious sends a strong signal to his league's players: The price of cocaine is going up.