The NFL said today that 16 players facing suspensions for failing drug tests in 1995 instead were placed in the league's treatment program and allowed to play as part of the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the league and the NFL Players Association that went into effect in 1995.
The New York Times reported in its Monday editions that the union had informed its members at its 1995 annual meeting in Hawaii that a "significant" number of players failed drug tests that year, but were not being disciplined because of what was described as a "secret agreement" between the league and player's union.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said there was never any intent to allow the 16 players to get away with having failed league-administered drug tests. He also denied the assertion by an unnamed league owner quoted in the Times story that more than two dozen players should have been suspended but were not.
"This was all part of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement," Aiello said. "In 1993, as part of our negotiations with the union, our goal was to change the drug program.
"Those negotiations went on for several years. It's been revised and improved. In the new program, the policy was geared to treatment and counseling. There was a little more leniency in the new program.
"Once the time came to start the new program when the agreement went into affect, there were 16 players facing suspension under the old program.
"They were placed in the new program, and some of them ultimately did get suspended. They did get a break, that is true. But they were in the program and being treated."
Aiello confirmed that only one of the 16 players remains in the NFL, but he declined to name the player. Six of the 16 ultimately were suspended by the league after failing drug tests once they entered the new program.
The Times said it learned about the 16 players from a videotape of the union's '95 annual meeting.
A Florida company hired by the union to tape the meetings, ostensibly to be used for promotional purposes among the membership, eventually got into a dispute with the NFLPA over payment. The Times said the firm, Sports Solutions, allowed a reporter to view the tapes.
NFL executive director Gene Upshaw and his deputy, Doug Allen, were reportedly on vacation today and could not be reached for comment.
NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis, who said he spoke with Upshaw earlier in the day, said Upshaw declined to comment.
Another highly placed union source involved in the contract negotiations said the final agreement was not designed "to give anyone a free pass or try to sweep anything under the rug."
"Our objective all along was to change the policy from search and destroy and seek and punish to having a policy that would help the players get over their problems," he said.
"We had to some way deal with the people who would have been in the old program with this new program, and that's what we negotiated. That's pretty standard procedure in any of these things."
Carmen Policy, president and part owner of the Cleveland Browns, said today he was "shocked" by the story because "I don't think what happened was sinister at all.
"It was simply moving from step A to step B in collective bargaining. It was not to hide anything by any means."
Jeff Pash, the NFL's executive vice president and league counsel, was involved in the negotiations starting in '93 to come up with a drug policy both sides could live with.
"We were going from a situation where a program had been put in place by a commissioner, initially Pete Rozelle, to a program that would have the full support and participation of the NFLPA," Pash said. It would add counseling and treatment and be run jointly by doctors and available nationally to players and their families.
"We compromised on pending cases by deferring it so those players would have the opportunity to avail themselves of a new treatment program.
"Compromise of grievances in the collective bargaining is quite common. We ended up with a stronger, more effective program and the full participation of the union. No one was hiding anything."
The league's old drug policy included a three-step punitive procedure: a fine and suspension for a first failed drug test or an arrest; a four-game suspension for a second positive test or incident; and a one-year suspension for a third positive test or incident.
The new policy has four steps, with no initial fine or punishment but mandatory treatment for anyone failing a drug test. In stage two, players are tested 10 times a month over a two-year period.
If there is a positive test in stage two, there is a four-game fine. Another positive test results in a four-game suspension and fine, and another failed test leads to a one-year suspension.
"Our drug program was jointly agreed upon with the union," Aiello said.
"They're a part of the program. Previously, the league handled everything."