Pro sports teams working at difficult task of controlling drug abuse

So much has been written lately about the widespread use of hard drugs in professional sports that one can only speculate how deep it goes.

Attempts to get players to talk about it, even with the promise that their names will not be used, yield little except an admission that the problem does exist.

Yet none of the players I talked with agreed with former National Football League defensive end Don Reese, who said recently in a much-publicized magazine article that use of illegal drugs in sports has reached epidemic proportions.

Instead I heard team participation estimates like 10 to 20 percent; more overall use of drugs in basketball and baseball because these games are played almost every day; and actually less in football because it's mostly a weekend sport.

Whatever the overall situation, however, it is obvious that football is getting most of the attention these days because of Reese's article plus other indications of increased usage.

Essentially, drug use can be divided into three categories according to the supposed effects: those intended to reduce pain, such as cortisone; so-called performance drugs like amphetamines; and ''recreational'' drugs, which include alcohol and marijuana as well as the drug everyone seems to be talking about these days: cocaine.

The supposed painkillers (normally prescribed by a team physician) are self-explanatory and are pretty much accepted by players as part of the game.

The performance category is exemplified by pills known as ''greenies'' or ''uppers'' that users think make them better athletes and that are not that difficult for them to obtain on their own.

Drugs in both of these categories are legal when obtained via prescription, though it is clear they have been abused in many cases. The ''recreational'' category obviously includes both legal and illegal substances, with the latter usually used away from the field.

Most pro locker rooms reportedly have at least one or two players who not only use drugs but sell regularly to teammates. Since players are extremely protective of each other when it comes to such things, however, management is usually the last to know.

Hard drugs are also available to any athlete who frequents nightclubs, hotel bars, or discos with underworld connections. Drugs obtained in such places are almost always more expensive than what is available on the street, but many players prefer this one-stop service for two reasons - quality and cleanliness. While street drugs are cheaper, some of the substances used to cut them can be more dangerous than the product itself.

All four major professional sports leagues in the United States (meaning baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey) now employ trained personnel that deal with drug and alcohol abuse. In a few instances, particularly in major league baseball, clubs have even set up their own in-house programs.

For several years, the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, have employed ex-pitcher Don Newcombe, a reformed alcoholic, to counsel their players.

Most club owners are as concerned with the physical well-being of their players as they are with the image these men project to the public - especially to impressionable youngsters who often use them as role models. But if a player involved in drugs or alcohol doesn't come forward himself and ask for help, management isn't going to discover his problem until it's too late.

On the theory that a retired pro star might be willing to shed some light on the drug traffic in sports, I asked a friend of mine, Roman Gabriel, to discuss what it was like during his 16 years in the National Football League.

Gabriel, the NFL's most valuable player in 1969 as the quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams, is head football coach at Cal Poly University in Pomona, Calif.

''Of course there are hard drugs in all areas of professional sports,'' Gabriel said. ''It's common knowledge and it's frightening. But I don't think it goes nearly as deep in any sport as we've been led to believe, although even one player with a habit is one too many.

''When I started playing pro football in 1962, there were a few guys who took greenies (uppers) on the day of a game because they thought it made them play better,'' he continued. ''When I hurt my arm and knee one year with LA, and a player suggested that I take a pill called Daprisal to kill the pain, it never occurred to me that I might be endangering my health.

''I was impressed when it helped ease my pain, but after a while I also realized that the side effects were messing up my thinking, which isn't good if you're a quarterback. I mean I was convinced I was playing great, when I actually wasn't playing well at all. But it took me almost a year and a half to realize what was happening to me and then, of course, I quit.''

Gabriel said he also noticed that players who took pills regularly got tired a lot quicker than they ordinarily would and that they invariably weren't much help near the end of a game.

''Yet if you got into a conversation with these guys about drugs, they'd tell you that what they were taking made them feel like Superman, only they never played that way,'' Roman recalled. ''As for cocaine - well, I never heard the word mentioned during my years in the league.

''In fact, it wasn't until I went to training camp in 1969 that I first smelled marijuana in our dormitories,'' he continued. ''But I only smelled it, I never saw anyone smoke it openly. Our coaches knew about it because they were in the dorms almost as much as we were, but they obviously didn't want to notice it so they didn't.

''I also know that one of the first things Dick Vermeil did when he became coach of the Philadelphia Eagles was to get rid of two players who had been selling drugs to their teammates right in the clubhouse. And there are other NFL coaches who have done the same thing.'' Asked if he had a solution for today's heavy drug traffic in sports, Gabriel replied:

''In my opinion, the way to stop anything bad is where it starts, and unfortunately with most athletes drugs start in high school. The situation gets worse in college and then really explodes in the pros because now the player is making so much money that he can buy anything he wants.

''The way to handle drugs in professional sports is with regular but unannounced urine checks,'' Roman continued. ''It's a joke when the people who run the Players' Association say this would be dehumanizing or an infringement of their members' rights.

''Once a player signs a contract, he has already given up most of his rights to the team that owns him, including what they ask him to give physically on the field.

''My feeling is that if urine checks help stop drugs, then they ought to be given. Those who aren't on drugs won't care and those who are will either have to change or get out. A drug-detection test is certainly preferable to watching a man destroy himself with chemicals.''

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