In the wake of a shattering Super Bowl defeat, members of the New England Patriots have moved boldly to claim victory over an even tougher adversary than the Chicago Bears -- drugs. Inspired by their coach, Raymond Berry, the players have voted to approve a voluntary, one-year drug testing agreement with the club, a step in some ways as revolutionary as dumping tea into Boston Harbor.
No pro football team has ever taken such unilateral action to clean up its own house, and the decision places the Patriots at cross purposes with their own labor union, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).
Reports of widespread drug usage have swirled around many sports in recent years, and the public keeps seeing new evidence of the problem. Last year a handful of major league baseball players were called to testify in a drug-trafficking trial.
Already this season two pro basketball stars, Walter Davis and Michael Ray Richardson (for a second time), have entered drug rehabilitation programs. And in the NFL, eight clubs had asked their players to submit to post-season drug tests before the Patriots' blockbuster story came to light.
What prompted the action in New England's camp was what Mr. Berry described, in a copyrighted story in Tuesday's Boston Globe, as an ``intolerable situation.''
``I would say we may be 28th in the [28-team] league as far as this problem goes, but there are at least five players we know who have a serious problem, and five to seven more whom we suspect very strongly,'' Berry was quoted. No players were identified, but several are starters.
Many coaches pay lip service to dealing with drug usage, but few possess quite the missionary zeal of Berry, a quietly and deeply religious man who seems to live a personal sermon in everything he does.
During the last off-season he traveled around the country visiting Patriots team members, and a discussion of drugs was one of the things on his agenda.
Most of those he talked with agreed that a voluntary testing program might be a good idea. The impetus for actually instituting one apparently grew when Berry realized that some players who had stopped using drugs were back on them. He felt compelled to keep a lid on the situation, though, until the season ended.
Now that it has, the Patriot players, by a two-thirds vote, have agreed to work with the team's management toward making the club drug-free by the opening of next summer's training camp.
Actual details of the program have to be worked out, but the idea is to create a vehicle for identifying drug users and a means for encouraging them to seek help.
Berry says he expects ``nothing but positive things'' to come of this attempt to restore young lives, yet he reportedly stands ready to get tough with those who persist in using drugs, possibly suspending repeat offenders without pay.
In voting for voluntary testing, the Patriots took action almost certain to meet with disapproval by the NFL players' union, which has opposed testing not called for in its collective barganing agreement with the league.
The NFLPA recently filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, opposing efforts by certain teams to require post-season testing. Some players have been fined for not complying.
At the association's annual pre-Super Bowl press conference, the players union released the results of a member survey that indicated 29 percent of the players polled believed there was a drug problem in the NFL, about 32 percent felt there was no problem, and 39 percent were not sure.
``I don't think there's such a great necessity for drug testing that we're willing to violate rights and invade persons,'' said NFLPA president Tom Condon. ``If we're supposed to be role models for young people, do you also tell those youngsters that all 1,500 [NFL players] are so untrustworthy you've got to test them any particular time [management] feels like it?''
The Patriot players don't intend their agreement with Berry and general manager Patrick Sullivan to establish a league-wide pattern of concessions. They consider it ``a personal agreement,'' effective only as long as Berry is coach and the Sullivan family runs the team. That might not be very long in light of reports that the franchise may soon be sold.
Yet clearly New England's football regiment has fired a shot heard round the sports world.