His words were sharp. His message was clear. When Commissioner Peter Ueberroth this week told all employes of the game he rules, with the exception of major-league players, that they would have to take a drug test, he was speaking to a much greater audience than the world of baseball.

The wide world of sports listened. And reacted. Once again, sports and drugs collided in public. And this time, people who know both say they might have reached the watershed.

Sam Rutigliano, the former coach of the National Football League Cleveland Browns and the only man to set up a drug counseling and treatment group within an individual professional sports team, liked what Ueberroth said.

"It's a bold decision," he said. "He's causing a lot of people to do Fred Astaires. Shuffle their feet. If you want to clean the problem up, you have to go for the jugular vein."

Dr. Irving Dardik, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Sports Medicine Council and a man who has spent much of the last year dealing with blood doping, drug testing and steroids, agrees with Ueberroth -- with reservations.

"I think you have to do something to test athletes," he said. "But it's going to take a lot more than testing to solve the problems. There are drugs you can't test for, there are questions of what's legal and what's not, and there are new drugs all the time."

And while Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, disagreed with Ueberroth's "grandstand play," he acknowledged that it wasn't all bad.

"We feel we have our (drug situation) under control," he said. "We do it internally, quietly, discreetly. We don't put a gun to someone's head. I'm not saying the problem is solved in the NFL. It's an on-going process."

Three of the four major sports leagues admit they have drug problems that must be dealt with. Baseball, the NFL and the National Basketball Association have extensive drug detection and rehabilitation programs; the National Hockey League has no written policy and helps players individually.

Just this week, in Sports Illustrated, Buffalo Bills nose tackle Fred Smerlas said 40 percent of NFL players use steroids. Others said it is as high as 90 percent.

What's more, the networks -- the companies that hold the purse strings -- wonder if there might not be some small correlation between declining TV ratings and the increasing news of drugs in sports.

"Yes, it does go through your mind," said Neal Pilson, executive vice president of CBS/Broadcast Group, which carries NBA games. "I have received some personal statements from people who would qualify as average fans that this has had an impact. It's totally incapable of objective analysis, but does it help television when a sport is identified with drug users and people are indicted for drug use? There is no conceivable way you can say yes."

Pilson pointed to an improvements in ratings for the network's NBA telecasts as an example. The ratings are up slightly over last season. "Over the last two to three years the NBA has improved its image," Pilson said. "The owners and players have a proper sense of the image of the league. Has that helped TV ratings increase? Yes, I think it has."

Ueberroth's announcement has, at least, made people think and speak up.

Rutigliano, for example, never will be remembered for his record in Cleveland. During his 6 1/2 years there, his teams won 47 and lost 50. He was fired after the Browns began 1984 with a 1-7 record. Then, with the help of several former players and doctors, he established the "Inner Circle," a support group for Browns players who were involved with drugs, especially cocaine. In four years, eight players were "directly" involved, he said. "They stayed with the program and absolutely straightened out their life."

The names have been kept secret, except for running back Charles White, who blew his cover when he attended a rehabilitation clinic in California, Rutigliano said. There has been no retribution from owner Art Modell of the Browns, or from the league. Former players such as Calvin Hill, who helped Rutigliano with counseling, swear by it. Doctors sing its praises.

But no one else in pro sports has tried anything like it.

"Why did no one else do it?" Rutigliano mused. "It involves so much, so much time, so much effort.

"Had the Cleveland Browns gone on and won the Super Bowl, then it would have been in vogue."

Drugs still are a "problem" in the NFL, he said. "Too many people have their head in the sand, thinking it's going to go away," he said. "It's not going to go away."

The Browns administer two drug tests per week to those players in the Inner Circle, Rutigliano said. The NFLPA knew about this, he said. "The owner and the team agreed. We were not monitoring them because of distrust, but because they knew they had to stay clean.

"Drug addiction is the one illness in which the person who has it doesn't think he's sick."

Rutigliano's success might be directly related to the size of his group. Ueberroth plans to test more than 3,000 people. Dardik scoffs at the notion of testing so many people.

"In the Olympics (Ueberroth was president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee), we tested medalists and did some spot-checking.

"But Ueberroth is not just testing at the World Series. He's testing everyone through the year, I guess. I agree with drug testing, but it's very technical, extremely expensive and extremely complicated."

Dr. Robert Forney is a toxicologist at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo. Rutigliano made him a part of the Inner Circle, and even asked him to travel with the Browns to counsel and advise players during free time in the hotel. Once Rutigliano asked Forney to talk to his team about drugs in place of the usual pregame psyche-up speech against the Los Angeles Rams.

Forney said drug testing sometimes is not monitored closely enough. It's not uncommon for a player to substitute another player's urine sample for his own, he said, or to alter the sample with a substance that masks the presence of drugs.

"Urine testing, I believe, is coming," he said. "I think we'll see it during pre-employment in many fields, and also during employment. Right now, people say, 'No one else does it. Why should we?' I think we'll see that argument evaporating."

In pro sports, drug tests are set up primarily to detect cocaine. In June 1982, former NFL defensive lineman Don Reese, now a member of the U.S. Football League's Birmingham Stallions, coauthored a cover story in Sports Illustrated about his use of cocaine. "All else being equal," he wrote with John Underwood, "you line up 11 guys who don't use drugs against 11 who do -- and the guys who don't will win every time.

"If you're a team on drugs, you'll never play up to your potential, at least not for more than a quarter or so. Then it's downhill fast. I've known times on the field when the whole situation blacked out on me. Plays I should have made easily I couldn't make at all. I was too strung out from the cocaine. It was like playing in a dream. I didn't think anybody else was out there."

Forney said athletes who use cocaine find some short-term positive effects.

"Drugs make you feel good, no question," he said. "They may keep you from feeling drowsy. They can control your appetite. These are emotional things, and ballplayers are emotional beings."

Said Hill, who often speaks and writes about the dangers of drug use: "It charges players up when they take cocaine. It's the drug that makes people feel like they want to feel."

Forney, who counsels several other pro sports teams, said an NFL quarterback once spoke with him about a receiver on his team. The receiver, Forney recalled, was using cocaine during games. "The quarterback told me he knew it was happening and could tell when it was happening. The guy was not getting to his assignment on time, he was dropping the ball. The quarterback said he had to hit him on the numbers or he would drop the ball."

The quarterback was fed up. "I don't care what he does with his own life," Forney remembered the quarterback saying, "but when he starts affecting me, that bothers me."

When the quarterback talked to the receiver about it, Forney said, the receiver's answer was, "I do better with cocaine."

"The biggest problem we have is the problem of denial," Forney said.

The receiver, Forney said, never received treatment and, to the best of his knowledge, is out of the league.

Rutigliano said he could spot cocaine users from practice habits and game films, once he got to know the symptoms of drug use. He also quickly found out that "drug dealers were following us in the next plane that took off behind us, that they had reservations at our hotel."

The problem still gnaws at Rutigliano today. "I don't know what the answer is, but it is not sitting in an office in New York saying it will go away," he said. "There is no question it eventually will hurt the game."

Hill agrees. "I don't see anybody else working as hard as we are," he said of the Inner Circle. "And we're just keeping our heads above water."