The NFL has told staff investigators for an Iowa senator what they have been saying publicly for the last 2 1/2 months--there was no attempt to allow 16 players who failed drug tests in 1995 to slip through the cracks of the league's drug program and go unpunished.

The league met with three members of Sen. Charles Grassley's (R-Iowa) staff last week in Washington, responding to an inquiry being conducted concerning the league's substance abuse program.

Grassley is the chairman of the Senate's caucus on International Narcotics Control.

The inquiry was initiated after a New York Times story in August implied the league had allowed the 16 players to go unpunished at a time when the NFL and its players' union had agreed on a new drug policy during the collective bargaining process toward a new contract.

The league since has said that all 16 players eventually were slotted into the new drug program, and that six of the 16 were later suspended for violating the program.

All 16 were monitored closely after the new program went into effect at the beginning of the 1996 season.

A source familiar with the caucus's inquiry said at this point there does not seem to be any reason to indicate NFL officials have not been forthcoming with investigators looking into the matter, but that it is premature to draw any conclusions.

"The best thing to say at this point is that the caucus still has some questions it wants answered," the source said.

"The position of the league and the union is that there was never any informal wink and nod policy that excused valuable players from the drug policy. They say that is not the case.

The caucus "is not at the position to say it can challenge the NFL position. They [investigators] want to be satisfied they've been thorough enough to answer any questions. They still want to talk to more people.

"But I don't think they have a villain here, and they're not trying to find a villain."

The NFL Players Association has declined public comment on the Times story, but one union source said yesterday "there simply is no story here. These guys [the 16] all went into the new program.

"It was part of the collective bargaining process, and no one was trying to give anyone a free ride."

The source also indicated that investigators from Grassley's office have not yet attempted to interview anyone in the NFLPA, but that if asked, the union would "fully cooperate with whatever they request."

Grassley and union executive director Gene Upshaw were not available to comment Wednesday.

Jill Kozeny, a spokesman for Grassley's senate office, said the drug caucus was "looking into whether there is an informal practice that excuses some NFL players from the league's anti-drug policy.

"The inquiry began a couple of months ago, and no conclusion has been reached.

"It's a matter of making sure we don't turn our back on allegations."