The National Football League, for decades a paragon of integrity and efficiency on the American sports scene, is facing the 1983 season amid suspicion, uncertainty and controversy.
On the first full weekend of preseason play, league officials and owners remain deeply shaken by continuing charges of illegal drug use by NFL players, and there is sharp disagreement about how to deal with the problem.
"It's a cloud hanging over the game," says Jim Heffernan, the NFL's director of public relations.
While there is no evidence that the integrity of an NFL contest has ever been compromised because of player involvement with illegal drugs, Commissioner Pete Rozelle says the issue poses a threat to public confidence in the game. "Such involvment may also give rise to pressures on players to alter their performance on the field in the interests of illegal gamblers," he said in a recent statement.
Last season's 57-day players strike was finally settled when the league and the NFL Players Association agreed on a five-year, $1.6 billion contract, but there is a difference of opinion over whether the walkout's effects linger.
While the games of many teams, such as the Redskins, continue to sell out, others are finding lagging sales and declining fan interest. The Kansas City Chiefs, for example, have sold only 28,500 season tickets this year, down from a high of 70,000 in the early 1970s. The Baltimore Colts have sold 23,500, a slight decline from last year.
The rival U.S. Football League has just completed its first season, and there is little indication that it poses a threat to the NFL in terms of fan loyalty and interest. Nevertheless, the USFL has managed to lure some top NFL players and has signed many top college players.
"We don't compete with the USFL for the entertainment dollar, and we don't compete for the loyalty of the fans," says Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns. "But we do compete for players. Therefore our costs have risen."
Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has some concerns about the effect of year-round football on the NFL. "People used to be anxious for football when the season started in the fall. Now the USFL has played in the spring, and they've had some already."
Finally, the NFL is facing a damage judgment of $49.2 million in the Raiders-Los Angeles Coliseum antitrust lawsuit, currently on appeal in the federal courts. Should the NFL lose its appeal, officials fear the door would be open for widespread legal attacks on a variety of league rules and policies.
"It could lead to rejections of other rules, and if people could ignore all other kinds of rules, you could have anarchy," says Jim Kensil, president of the New York Jets.
Of the many issues facing the NFL, few have been as vexing as the drug problem, thrust into national prominence in June 1982 with Sports Illustrated's publication of a first-person account by former Miami Dolphin defensive end Don Reese of his involvement with cocaine.
At the time league officials were skeptical of Reese's allegation that cocaine "controls and corrupts the game." But over the last year, as more and more players became publicly linked to cocaine use or trafficking, league officials have acknowledged the problem to be more serious than they once thought.
Last month Rozelle suspended 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 through the first four games of the season because of their cocaine involvement.
Last week, Redskin strong safety Tony Peters was arrested on charges of cocaine trafficking. Peters is the second Redskin to face federal drug charges; running back Clarence Harmon has been charged with possession of cocaine in Texarkana, Tex.
NFL officials say the league will take no action against the players until the judicial process is complete.
Calvin Hill, former running back with the Cowboys, Redskins and Browns and currently a consultant with the Cleveland organization, said the four suspensions amount to a recognition by Rozelle "that the integrity of the game is threatened. . . if a team has two or three addicts, it's a major problem. It's a tremendous problem in society, and it may be a larger problem proportionately among professional athletes."
Cowboy President Tex Schramm also applauded the suspensions. He said his team has hired a former FBI agent to look for any signs of drug use by players and rehabilitation on a confidential basis will still be available for players who come forward voluntarily, Schramm said. "If they don't come forward, we're going to go after them and confront them. We're just not going to tolerate it."
Alan Page, a former defensive tackle with the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, predicted Rozelle's suspensions will only discourage players with drug problems from coming forward. "It will drive them into the closet," said Page, now a lawyer in Minneapolis.
Similarly, Ed Garvey, the former executive director of the NFL Players Association, accused Rozelle of taking "a public relations approach to the problem," contending that the suspensions accomplish little or nothing.
Rooney worries that continued news developments concerning drug use in the NFL will discourage fans from following football. "The public gets turned off when they read about this kind of thing," he said. "I'm not saying it isn't news. But that is not what people want to read on the sports pages."
Rooney also thinks there remains residual fallout from last season's strike, although Schramm and Kensil disagree. "Not in Pittsburgh or Washington where the stadiums are all sold out," said Rooney, "but in places where they are not sold out, the sales may be a little softer."
In Buffalo, Budd Thalman, vice president for public relations for the Bills, says a decline in season ticket sales there is more the result of a depressed economy. "We've got a lot of unemployment here," he said. Thalman says sales will be substantially less than the 30,000 of last year.
On the legal front, a three-judge appeals panel has heard but not yet decided the NFL's appeal of a decision by a federal jury in Los Angeles that the league acted in violation of federal antitrust laws in attempting to block the move of the Oakland Raiders to the Los Angeles Coliseum. The same jury subsequently made the $49.2 million damage award to the Raiders and the Coliseum.
Legislation is pending on Capitol Hill that would compel the Raiders to return to Oakland and exempt NFL rules regarding relocation of franchises from antitrust liability. But there has been little action on the measure, and NFL officials are worried about the stability of the league's future should the NFL lose on both fronts. In particular, they are concerned that the league's policy of sharing all TV, postseason and Super Bowl money equally among all 28 clubs may be subject to antitrust attack.
"We are entitled to have a structure and when the final appeals are completed, I hope that structure will be preserved," said Schramm. "If it isn't then we and the other sports are in a lot of trouble."