Gene Upshaw, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, said yesterday he believes NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle took the right action last month in suspending four players through the first four games of the season because of their involvement with cocaine.
Upshaw, who met with Rozelle in New York, told the Associated Press the suspensions could be helpful in fighting the NFL's drug abuse problem. "Now we can actually point to the guys and say, 'This is what will happen . . . It's what has happened,' " Upshaw said.
An offensive guard with the Raiders for 16 years, Upshaw was president of the NFLPA for two years before becoming executive director in June. Earlier this week, he was interviewed by Washington Post Staff Writers Paul Attner and Bart Barnes. Excerpts from the interview follow:
Q: What lies ahead for the NFLPA under your leadership?
A: I'd like to see us build a relationship with the other side. I'd like to see if we can work together. Why should we be adversaries all the time?
Q: Do you have any specific programs that you might want to implement now?
A: The drug situation is one in which we're working together already. We're also working together in career counseling. We have the safety and welfare committee that we're working together on, the competition committee . . . So there are a lot of areas where we can work together, but for so many years we just haven't done it, and now it's time to do it.
Q: What specifically are you trying to do to build a different type of relationship?
A: After going through 57 days of a strike, we thought it was necessary to change that whole attitude. It was a perfect opportunity to do it with us making a change on our side as far as the leadership was concerned . . . We try to discuss problems before they become crises. And we discuss them on a day-to-day basis. I pick up the phone and I call Rozelle's office or I call (NFL Management Council executive director Jack) Donlan's office and we discuss problems. And see if we can find that middle ground before it goes the whole route of a grievance or a trial or whatever.
Q: Has the drug situation occupied as much time and effort as anything else?
A: Well, it's occupied a lot. We recognize the fact that the commissioner has authority on the integrity of the game. That's his turf. All we have done over the last few weeks is try to have some input and we have had that.
Q: How bad is the drug situation?
A: I don't think anyone knows. And if we did we might be doing more. So what we're doing now is we're trying to work together to solve it. And hopefully we still have the ability where a player can come in and submit to the treatment.
Q: Has there been any concern on your part that in the recent stories dealing with drug use, most, if not all, the players who have been named in the media are black ballplayers? Is there any suspicion on your part or have you heard anything from other players throughout the league that blacks are being singled out?
A: I haven't heard anything to substantiate that blacks have been singled out. And I know it's a concern. The commissioner has expressed this to me that he was concerned.
Q: What, that so many of them are black?
A: Yes. But there are a lot of groups I know . . . are really concerned that it seems to be all blacks that are being named.
Q: There have been some problems with the Redskins, first Clarence Harmon and now Tony Peters. Have you had any conversations with the team or those players or specifically tried to find out what was going on in those cases?
A: I've talked to Mark Murphy, who is on the executive committee, and he has a lot of concern, mainly because they're his teammates and also because they're football players. And I'm not so sure that the athletes on each team know who's doing it.
Q: Is it that easy to hide?
A: It probably is. You don't walk around with a big C on your head saying, 'I use cocaine.'
Q: For a long time the NFL, the players, the league, the fans, were riding the gravy train. The golden image of the league was held up to everybody as the way things should be. That image has been at least tarnished, if not really hurt. Can it be restored?
A: Well, it's all up to the people that are involved in the decision-making process to ensure that we continue to promote the game and make it and keep it what it already is. I don't agree that the game has necessarily suffered from the bad things that happen. What it's done is said that football players are human, too. And we tend to forget that from time to time. They've been given this great gift of talent to play football. But we tend to forget that they still have problems like every other human in our society.
Q: Do you have any specific things that you'd like to see done to help solve the drug problem?
A: Well, I would think the education factor has to be stressed more. At a team level. (Baltimore Colt Coach) Frank Kush even said it. He said that maybe we're spending too much time on football and not enough time on some of these other areas. And I agree with that. And I think that we do need to stress counseling more thoroughly.
Q: What about the United States Football League? What effect has that had? What about the organizing petition for the group? Where does that stand now?
A: Okay, the NFL is faced with a competing league and it's driven salaries up. That plus the minimums that we have in the collective bargaining agreement. As far as the organizing effort is concerned we'll have a runoff election between the USFL Players Association, which is our splinter group, and no union.
Q: What is (former NFLPA executive director) Ed Garvey's role now?
A: All he's done is help me in the transition. He's living in Wisconsin, but if I need advice about certain situations, I can always pick up the phone and say, 'Ed, what what does this mean? '
Q: Is he a consultant, an official consultant?
A: Yes. He knows where all the bodies are buried. He knows everything about the organization.
Q: As a union, financially what kind of shape are you in?
A: Well, quite naturally we've felt the strike. The strike affected the players as well as it affected management and we have to make up for what we lost during the strike. We were on strike for 57 days. It cost a lot of money. We were negotiating, staying places 18 days at a time, 20 days here, flying all over the country. The owners lost a lot of money. They estimated they lost about $200 million. Estimate us at about $90 million. So that's a lot of money.