Shortly after I had retired as an active player, Sam Rutigliano, coach of the Cleveland Browns, asked if I was interested in helping him and team owner Art Modell in a "little project."
Some little project.
The Browns were starting an employe assistance package -- investment counseling, continuing education counseling and, in a first for pro sports, drug counseling. They wanted me to become squarely involved in the Browns' effort to meet the challenge of drug abuse among its players.
During my last years as a player I knew some players used illegal and so-called "recreational" drugs. At the time, I dismissed this as "boys will be boys." Certainly, I had no idea of the power of these substances. I soon learned.
That first year, 1982, we started a program to help players, and ultimately intervened in the lives of eight men. We sent them to treatment centers and set up "in-house" after-care programs complete with group therapy and private psychiatric counseling.
The first part of the program is intervention, which involves making a player aware of his chemical problem and getting him to visit an appropriate diagnostician.
Once diagnosed as addicted, the players were enrolled in drug treatment centers. Each learned about his illness. And through interaction with other addicts, they accepted the fact that addiction is a lifetime affliction.
Still, a treatment center just prepares an addict for the most difficult phase of his recovery -- attaining lifelong sobriety. The desire to use drugs never abates in the mind of an addict.
Addiction to a drug is more self-reinforcing han the desire for sex or food. Thus, a well-organized program of after-care support is vital. A system of support, like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and the Browns' program, the Inner Circle, is absolutely essential.
Though I had played for 13 years and thought I had seen it all, I soon realized how little I knew about 13 years of teammates and the abuse that an education system allows to be heaped upon many of its so-called scholar-athletes.
Why is anyone surprised at what happened at Tulane, where cocaine is reported to be at the core of a point-shaving scandal? Probably because they were sticking their heads in the sand like I did. But the battle against drug abuse in athletics is one major skirmish in a war that ought to be waged against tremendous abuses in the entire athletic system.
When I speak at college campuses across the country, I am constantly asked why athletes, with everything going for them, get involved with dope? I answer that athletes usually initially experiment for many of the same reasons as anyone else: insecurity, status, peer pressure and boredom.
One of our players confided to me the insecurity he had upon entering the NFL.
"Suddenly, there were tremendous expectations," he said. "I was supposed to be cool, erudite, sexy to the women, and macho. Hell, I did not even understand what the 50 percent bracket meant and there I was, investing in tax shelters in oil and gas. And I always had been shy socially. And then I got turned onto cocaine. Then I felt I was all of those things . . . or I didn't care. Cocaine told me I was Clark Gable, Lee Iacocca and Johnny Unitas all rolled into one. I liked that feeling. I suppose the question should be, 'Who wouldn't?' "
I believe there are other reasons athletes perhaps are more vulnerable. Consider the plight of athletes in many of our major college athletic programs.
A college degree ought to signify that a person has spent four years satisfying academic requirements set by the board of trustees and the academic faculties. It should signify that a person has been involved in training his mind, learning how to become responsible and logical.
All too often, the public is learning that many athletes have not gone to class, that some cannot even read. How can this happen? Because administrators and trustees know that winning games can be a lucrative proposition, bringing in millions to their institutions.
Too many colleges take kids from high school, promise to educate them, then handpick their courses for four years and guide them through the maze of eligibility. Deposited in the real world, these so-called scholar-athletes often have been so insulated, they simply cannot cope.
Four years of being pampered in college makes it easy for athletes to believe the next sweet talker. This trusting, insulated athlete arrives in the pros much like the lost lamb.
Athletes traditionally are easy marks for all the backslapping, full-of-praise agents; for groupies, for assorted other hangers-on and unsavory influences. And so, one day the pusher offers a free "toot."
As one of my guys related:
"I met Joe and he seemed like a nice guy. He always was willing to give me a gram of some good stuff. That was initially. Then one day he did not have any. But he said if I was willing, he knew where to buy some 'flake.' It was supposed to be dynamite. Hell, money was not a problem for me. And I trusted him. He had always been nice to me. I bet I gave him enough money over the years to buy a nice German import and put a down payment on a condo."
Unfortunately, the argument for law, the appeal to a sense of integrity, means very little to the pro athlete who has been pampered all his life, allowed to slide through school, seen his coach hand him a regular check.
"Hell, we had one guy who never met his sugar daddy," another player told me. "Every Monday, he (the player) would go to a safe deposit box and pick up his ticket money. That's all he did. An assistant coach took care of giving the sugar daddy the tickets. We never knew who that sugar daddy, was but he was generous. He was paying top dollar."
Countless professional athletes have been victimized by a system in which rules constantly are violated by representatives of higher centers of learning -- those same centers charged with helping young people develop values.
Clearly, there is something wrong with the major college sports system. And how many more point-shaving, academic or recruiting scandals will it take before America wises up?