Gene Upshaw, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, said yesterday that although NFL players remain adamantly opposed to mandatory random drug testing, they would agree to accept stiffer penalties for drug offenders, including a one-year suspension for third-time offenders.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement, NFL players take urinalysis tests as part of their mandatory preseason physical. Players may be tested during the season only if the team physician feels there is "reasonable cause" to suspect a drug problem.
Upshaw also said that if Commissioner Pete Rozelle tries to implement a new, more rigid drug program next season without first negotiating with the NFLPA, "we'll fight him to the hilt."
Upshaw said he discussed the drug issue with Rozelle most recently in a phone conversation Tuesday. He noted that "(Rozelle) wants random testing," and that the commissioner "says for the 'integrity of the game' he has the right" to implement his own drug program.
"What's scary about all of this," Upshaw said, "is that you have (Baseball Commissioner Peter) Ueberroth out here on his campaign (saying): 'I'm going to be the first one to do it, blah, blah, blah.' Then it becomes a P.R. campaign about who was the first commissioner to get it done. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in helping players. That's my duty. I'm not interested in P.R."
Upshaw said league players would support a drug program whereby first-time offenders receive full or perhaps partial pay while rehabilitating and then are allowed to regain their position on the roster. A second-time drug offender would receive no pay while he rehabilitates and a third-time offender would be suspended for one year.
"I could sell (the players) on that tomorrow," Upshaw said. "I could sell them on almost anything that didn't include (a mandatory urinalysis) every time they lost or every time they thought they were supposed to win or anytime a coach gets mad or some witch hunt (occurs).
"I don't say suspend the guy for life. That's a long time. You're only talking about a career that lasts an average of 4.2 years. I think the last two (proposed penalties) are really severe."
Rozelle released a brief statement through a league spokesman yesterday that read: "Gene and I have met three times since before the Super Bowl, and some correspondence has also been exchanged. I want to talk further to both Upshaw and to (Management Council Executive Director Jack) Donlan to get their opinions as to what might be done to solve this problem."
On Tuesday, the National Basketball Association banned New Jersey's Micheal Ray Richardson after he tested positive for drugs for the third time, part of the NBA's get-tough antidrug policy established in 1984. Richardson can apply for reinstatement after two years.
Currently, NFL players who test positive for drugs or who have sold or used illegal drugs are subject to fines, suspension and probation at the discretion of Rozelle. Unlike the NBA, though, the NFL has no explicit provision for banning such players.
The NFLPA conducted a survey among league players late last season and found that 72 percent were opposed to random testing.
Upshaw said of the possibility of mandatory random testing: "The players understand what (management) will do with this type of power and how it will be used against them. There are a lot of players out there who feel that they have nothing to hide, and I agree. I'm not trying to protect drug use in this league. What I am trying to do is protect players' rights when they are violated. Legally, to protect themselves, players have to know when a drug test is coming.
"I'm tired of hearing (Dallas Cowboys president) Tex Schramm say: 'This invasion of (players') privacy is not enough for me.' Well, it may not be enough for Tex, but it's enough for me" to oppose mandatory random testing, Upshaw added. "Legally, where I come down on it, is (that) your medical records are privileged and they are private and when they are leaked and third parties get access to it, that's wrong.
"We believe a player has his responsibility on and off the field, but he also has some rights."
Upshaw said that the "reasonable cause" provision expressed in the current agreement must be made more explicit. "What (management) wants to use it for is if a player misses a meeting or if he's late for a plane, they figure he must be using drugs. We don't think that's probable cause. It should be spelled out exactly what it is," Upshaw said.
The issue of drug use in the NFL and how to combat it has been in the spotlight recently. Several teams, including the St. Louis Cardinals, tried to have mandatory urinalysis tests at the end of the regular season, but met strong resistance from players. One day after the Super Bowl it was reported that 12 members of the AFC champion New England Patriots, including four starters, had been involved with drugs during the regular season, specifically cocaine.
Twenty-nine percent of league players who responded to the NFLPA survey said they believed there was a "drug problem" in the league, while 32 percent said there was no drug problem. Another 39 percent said they were not sure.
Upshaw said the drug issue will not be used as a bargaining chip by either side when negotiations begin to replace the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires after the 1986 season. Upshaw said the players union was willing to accept mandatory postseason drug testing last year if league owners were willing to use a 49-man roster. (Owners decided in favor of a 45-man roster.)
"Since I've been talking with Pete, I've never said: 'We'll trade you this for that,' " Upshaw said. "I say: 'Tell me your concerns and I'll tell you mine.' "
Asked if the union might vote to strike if Rozelle tries to implement his own program, Upshaw said: "It depends on what the program is and it depends on how he approaches it."