The leaders of the National Football League Players Association are willing, for the first time, to accept a program of fines and suspensions for players who are repeat users of illegal drugs, it has been learned. The most severe penalty in the proposed program is a suspension for a minimum of one year for third-time offenders.
In the current collective-bargaining agreement between NFL team owners and players, there is no schedule of penalties for drug offenders, although players who become involved with illegal drugs are subject to fines, suspension and probation at the discretion of Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Under the proposed program, which was formulated by the NFLPA's nine-man executive committee during a meeting in Washington Saturday and will be explained in detail at a news conference today, here is the schedule of penalties:
*First-time drug offenders would be required to accept random testing for the remainder of the season.
*Second-time drug offenders would be required to forfeit a paycheck for one game.
*Third-time offenders would be suspended from the league, but would be allowed to appeal for reinstatement after one year, according to Gene Upshaw, executive director of the union. This is similar to the regulation in the National Basketball Association, which banishes third-time offenders and allows for an appeal after two seasons.
The union leaders created this proposal about 10 days after Rozelle said that if the players union and the owner's Management Council were unable to reach agreement on a new drug program for next season, he would implement his plan unilaterally. His plan includes random testing of every player during the season.
Currently, every NFL player is required to undergo a urinalysis as part of a preseason physical. Players may be tested during the season only if a team physician feels there is "reasonable cause" to suspect a drug problem. The collective-bargaining agreement specifies that a player suspected of drug use will be directed to the Hazleden clinic in Minnesota for testing, although many clubs have sent players to local facilities, instead.
"We're not using this as bargaining material," Upshaw said. "We're saying we're willing to do this immediately. At some point in time, players must recognize that if you use drugs , this is what will happen. We have to talk about penalties because that's what's missing."
The union's proposed program will be presented to the league's 28 player representatives at an April 22 meeting in Hawaii.
There have not been changes in the players and owners drug policy since the current collective-bargaining agreement was signed four years ago. Since then, the NFL, NBA and major league baseball have endured one publicized account after another of players' involvement with drugs.
In an effort to make its program acceptable to players, the NFLPA plan is designed to keep drug test results confidential and would limit the clubs' role in the testing procedure.
The proposed program calls for a private drug facility in each of the 28 cities to administer the preseason urinalysis. The teams would not be advised of the results.
If a player tests positive, he would undergo rehabilitation at the facility on an outpatient basis and, once he has worked through the treatment stage, he would be tested on a random basis. Under the proposed plan, if a player tests positive a second time, he would be fined one game's pay and the team would be notified.
"Maybe that's the time the clubs should know," Upshaw said, "because the next step and the guy is out. Maybe that's the time the clubs should get involved."
Upshaw said the committee would like to put the program into the collective-bargaining agreement for four years. "We feel that's a good way to test it," he said. "We're willing to put it into effect right now.
"We decided that it was time to put some teeth in the program. This is the first time that players are saying that if a player continues to do drugs , 'Kick a guy out,' " Upshaw said. "I don't think this is a public relations move. I think this is the players saying that it's time we do something, and this is what we're willing to do."
Rozelle was unavailable to comment. But Jack Donlan, executive director of the Management Council, said, "I don't think the players have any right to determine what the penalties will be. That comes under the commissioner's purview . . . I think they are getting into an area where they do not belong and they are not getting into an area where they do belong."
Donlan said that other than Al Davis, the Los Angeles Raiders' managing general partner, he does not know of an NFL owner who opposes mandatory random testing.