The National Football League already has endured a divisive battle in trying to combat drug use by its players, but beneath the surface is a problem that threatens to divide the league along racial lines: Since 1980, 86 percent of the players whose drug involvement has become public are black.

Thirty-seven of the 43 NFL players whose drug involvement in the 1980s has been confirmed either by the individual or by his team are black, including all seven players suspended by the league for drug involvement. These figures concern prominent blacks, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Gene Upshaw, NFL Players Association executive director; and former all-pro defensive end Carl Eller, who has served as a drug consultant to the NFL since 1981.

Jackson said the "number appears to be disproportionate to reality" and that there is a "double standard." He said he based his opinions upon numerous conversations with NFL players, both blacks and whites. Jackson also said he plans to speak with Commissioner Pete Rozelle about this issue, which he said is part of "a pattern of institutionalized racism."

Upshaw and Eller said they know of cases where NFL teams have protected white players involved with drugs, while allowing black players to become exposed to public scrutiny. Upshaw declined to cite specific examples. As a drug consultant to the NFL who has at times worked with various teams, Eller said he has helped "about 27 players, about 15 black and a dozen white. But I haven't seen the names of the whites in the paper."

Eller also said he knows of two white quarterbacks, whom he declined to name, who were involved with drugs and "were just given a reprimand by the club . They were sent to a private counselor and never went in for treatment."

Eller said that in 1983 he worked with a team, whose name he wouldn't disclose, and said the team tested its players for drugs and "14 players tested positive, about half of them white, many of them white superstars." He said none of the names were made public, but "later I found out the names of the black players who had tested positive and they weren't with the team for very long. The white guys are still on the team."

Rozelle said he was unaware that such a high percentage of players confirmed to have been involved with drugs were black. However, he said he spoke with Upshaw approximately 18 to 24 months ago about the fact that only blacks have been suspended for drug involvement. Rozelle said he and Upshaw "both were concerned about the image being created" by these suspensions and that "neither of us wanted to reach the conclusion" that drug involvement in the league is largely a black problem.

Rozelle said the confirmed reports "are not an accurate indicator" of total drug involvement, although he did not elaborate. As for the charges that management of NFL clubs protects whites involved with drugs more than blacks, Rozelle said, "That's highly unlikely. Coaches are interested in winning football games. I wouldn't think there would be preferential treatment."

Fifty-three percent of the more than 1,300 players in the NFL are black, according to the most recent players union survey. The disparity between that figure and the 86 percent figure is vast, which troubles blacks. However, several club executives said they think the large majority of players involved with illegal drugs are black.

'A Black Thing'

Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm said, "My experience with the players that we have suspected in the past, when you speak of drugs, is that it has been predominantly a black thing; 86 percent may be a little strong, though.

"When you talk about alcohol, it's bigger with the whites in the league. When you talk drugs, it's the other way [blacks]."

Calvin Hill, a former All-Pro running back, has worked with the Cleveland Browns' Inner Circle substance abuse program. "Anybody who says it's a black problem doesn't know what he's talking about. Whether it's denial or racism, it's an erroneous statement," said Hill, who is black. "If you look hard enough [for player drug involvement in the NFL], you'll find it across the board. I know there's a tremendous sense of anger over this among blacks in the league, that it's another example of how the system discriminates against us."

Charles Jackson, the NFL's assistant director of security since 1975 who has been involved with law enforcement for 34 years, said, "If you had said a few years ago that drug involvement in the NFL was overwhelmingly a black problem, I would have said yes. But with the current collective bargaining agreement [established in 1982], the confidentiality is greater and it's harder to tell."

Charles Jackson, who is black, said of the drug users in the league "a large amount are blacks. . . . It's unfortunate, but it's a fact. [But] it doesn't mean blacks are the only ones with a problem with drugs. [Drug use by white players] is more recreational than abusive. Unfortunately, use by blacks is more abusive, leading toward dependency."

Of the 13 whites on the management level of NFL clubs contacted by The Washington Post, only one -- Sam Rutigliano, who coached Cleveland from 1978 until he was fired in 1984 -- said he believes that as many whites are using illegal drugs as blacks. He said, "I guarantee that if you did random [drug] testing this afternoon of all the players who were on the rosters at the end of last year, you'd see [drug use in the league] go right down the middle."

The accompanying list compiled by The Post includes players whose involvement with drugs was made public while they were still active in the league, and only since 1980. The extent of drug involvement varies greatly, although nearly all were involved with either marijuana or cocaine. The list does not include unconfirmed reports of drug involvement, reports of treatment for alcohol abuse or pending court charges in which a player maintains innocence.

The list includes some of the most prominent blacks in the league in the 1980s, including 13 All-Pros, ranging from the Redskins' Tony Peters to the Giants' Lawrence Taylor, and two former Heisman Trophy winners, the Rams' Charles White and the Redskins' George Rogers. It also includes the six New England Patriots confirmed by the club to have been involved with drugs during last year's Super Bowl season: Kenneth Simms, Raymond Clayborn, Stephen Starring, Irving Fryar, Roland James and Tony Collins.

The six whites on the list are not high-visibility players. In fact, the most prominent of the six are Minnesota linebacker Scott Studwell and former San Francisco linebacker Craig Puki, who started in Super Bowl XVI. The other whites on the list are former St. Louis defensive end Kirby Criswell, who served time in prison after he was convicted on charges of manufacturing methamphetamine, a stimulant, and marijuana possession; San Diego reserve tight end Chris Faulkner; Chicago reserve receiver James Maness, who caught only one pass as a rookie last season before being sidelined by injury; and defensive tackle Mike Perko, who was cut as a rookie by Pittsburgh in 1982 and played one season with Atlanta before his NFL career ended.

The Post conducted interviews over the past two months with dozens of players, coaches, front office personnel, sociologists and specialists in drug rebabilitation. Experts on the subject of drug use in the NFL said the problem is not restricted to blacks. But they offered some explanations for the high percentage of players publicly identified as having drug problems being black.

Whites More Discreet

Rutigliano and the NFL's Jackson said whites in the league tend to be more discreet with their drug use and protect themselves from revelation better than blacks.

"The white player [using drugs] protects himself better by dealing with it more discreetly, by hiding it better, by not coming forward, by using alcohol as a cover-up for cocaine, or maybe by going to his own private [rehabilitation] center instead of going to Hazelden [the NFL drug center]" Rutigliano said.

Specialists in the field of substance abuse said that, in their experience, whites often turn more readily to alcohol than to drugs, and that blacks have a greater incidence of relapses during attempted recovery.

Dr. Joseph Pursch, a drug and alcohol specialist who has treated former first lady Betty Ford and NFL players such as Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson and the Rams' White, said whites in professional sports are more prone to "booze and beer."

Dr. Peter Bell, executive director of the Minnesota Institute on Black Chemical Abuse, who has worked with the Hazelden Institute, said drugs are perceived differently in the black communities, where "when you use drugs, it's viewed as your own business, and if you do your job on the field that's all that counts." Bell, who is black, added, "My fear is that the wide disparity of the numbers will get passed on in the light that it is another form of racism by the owners. I think that would be a simplistic and inaccurate response."

Dick Vermeil, who coached Philadelphia from 1976 through 1982, said he released three players for drug involvement and, though he wouldn't cite names, "all three were black."

"It's not a racial thing," Vermeil said, "it's an environmental thing. Even going back to my college recruiting [at UCLA], many times in that environment, a black was exposed to more things on the street than whites. I think being raised in that type of atmosphere, with some type of drug or another, creates a tolerance toward it as they get older."

Theo Bell, the former wide receiver for Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay who said he was treated for alcohol and drug addiction in 1982, said, "In the 10 years I played in the league [1976-85], I know alcohol was the No. 1 mind-altering chemical used by white players. I would say the No. 1 [chemical] used by blacks was marijuana.

"For a lot of us blacks, we always thought we were slicker than slick, me included," said Bell, who now works for the Buccaneers as a consultant in player and community relations. "That John Shaft movie did a lot for us. You know, Superfly, the guy on the corner with the big, fancy car. We're still fighting that today."

Eller, who runs the Triumph drug rehabilitation center in Minneapolis, discounts any attempt to explain the disparity. "It's perceived that the white players are cleaner," he said. "It's a myth the public and the media have built up. It's the same perception we have in our most affluent suburbs where some of the greatest users of cocaine are."

Drug use by white players often goes undetected by teams and the public, several white former players and Rutigliano said.

Parties in Seattle

Pete Cronan, who retired recently after eight seasons as a linebacker with Seattle and the Redskins, recalled "mushroom parties" in Seattle in 1980-81 when "three or four white players had a pocketful of coke and [ate hallucinogenic wild] mushrooms." One of his former Seattle teammates, 11-year tackle Bob Newton, said that in 1980-81 "three or four of the young, white players who looked up to me as a veteran would party with me after games or during the week at one of our houses. Marijuana, cocaine, tequila -- we did the whole shot."

Newton said he didn't think Coach Jack Patera was aware of his involvement with drugs. "I had been smoking marijuana since I was 15; I had been using cocaine since 1973 and I had been drinking since high school," said Newton, who underwent alcohol and drug rehabilitation following his NFL career.

Rutigliano said that of the 11 players who have participated in the Browns' Inner Circle drug program, four were white. (In 1981, the Browns created the Inner Circle as a year-round support group for players suffering from drug and alcohol problems.) Of the 11, only the name of White has been made public.

Rutigliano said it was a "running joke in the Inner Circle that only blacks in the league had a drug problem, because we knew it wasn't true."

Several blacks cited the 49ers' handling of a drug rumor involving quarterback Joe Montana last year as an example of how they feel whites are handled differently than blacks. The team called a news conference to deny Montana was involved with drugs, something those blacks said would not have been done for them by San Francisco or any other NFL team.

"It's very upsetting for anyone to intimate that we were giving Joe Montana preferential treatment," said Bill Walsh, president, general manager and head coach of the 49ers. "With his national reputation and visibility, we felt we had to step in because he was being caught up in an expose in a negative way and he was not at all party to it. There were at least two, three or four rumors that were being circulated in gossipy fashion around the Bay Area that Joe was allegedly being stopped by a patrolman with drugs in his possession; another story had him being admitted to a hospital for drug rehabilitation."

Walsh said he "certainly" would have come to any of his players' defense "whether it was a Joe Montana or a Ronnie Lott [a black defensive back]."

Walsh said: "Racism in the NFL is non-existent. How could a team isolate one group from another? That isn't possible." Schramm concurred, saying, "I'd thoroughly resent the implication of a racial conspiracy in terms of information not being divulged about white players. I don't think there's any basis for it."

Rutigliano also denied that management protects white players more than blacks, in terms of guaranteeing confidentiality for drug involvement. Rutigliano said that if a greater protection ever was given to a player by management, "it would be given to a superstar, whether he is white or black."

St. Louis linebacker E.J. Junior, who is black and who was arrested in a 1983 drug raid, also discounted the notion of a conspiracy, saying that the disclosures of the names of players involved with illegal drugs came from sources other than the NFL. Junior and nine other blacks on the 42-man list were either apprehended by police or federal agents or admitted involvement as part of a federal investigation.

Clearly, blacks are concerned about the implications and the impact of the reports. Hill said the numbers "send out a dangerous message to young blacks. And for people who want to believe the worst about blacks, this is a reinforcing thing."