AFTER the humiliation of their Super Bowl defeat, the New England Patriots have embarked on an even stronger test of courage -- eradication of drug use among the football team's players by the new season. This could make a greater contribution to sports than winning the coveted Lombardi Trophy. The Patriot players, after Sunday's game in New Orleans, voted to accept a drug testing program. They became the first professional football team to do so. The Patriots were not blaming drugs for their defeat. They were under some pressure to respond to reports of drug use among as many as a dozen of the team's 58 players: A news story was delayed by agreement -- itself a subject of controversy -- until after Sunday's game.
There are problems with the Patriots' solution. It is already under challenge. The agreement holds only as long as the current coach, Raymond Berry, and the current management, the Sullivan family, retain their positions, and the Sullivans are expected to put the team up for sale in the next few weeks. The agreement lacks leaguewide sanction. The league's players association strongly objects: Such programs can, if handled injudiciously, tarnish their careers and wipe out their livelihood.
Getting leaguewide cooperation is essential. Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm calls for leaguewide, mandatory, unannounced testing of players. This can best be described as the management's opening bargaining position. The professional baseball and basketball leagues have adopted drug programs that include testing and treatment, with salary cuts and suspensions as sanctions, depending in part on whether players are convicted of drug use or come forward voluntarily. Suspected cases can trigger panel review and a recommendation of testing. Testing, however, is not mandatory -- a situation that baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth would remedy.
Civil liberties issues are also raised by testing. Unless one agrees to testing on a truly voluntary basis or as terms of a contract, it is a violation of privacy. Search of one's home or auto for drugs cannot be random; the same holds true for one's person. The Constitution protects against governmental intrusions of this sort -- efforts by a New Jersey school district to require drug and alcohol testing of students have been stalled in the courts. Nonpublic entities like pro sports teams can make testing subject to collective bargaining, even though individuals may object as a matter of principle.
In competitions like the Olympic Games, testing is a condition the athlete accepts upon entering. The National Collegiate Athletic Association earlier this month authorized drug testing for athletes entering its championship events and the 18 major college postseason football bowl games. The NCAA will test for 86 drugs, with suspensions as penalties.
Required testing of athletes should have its limits. It should be directed at eradicating the problem, helping the athlete, and ensuring a drug-free athletic climate. Tragically, the market among young athletes seems to be building for mood-altering, ``competition enhancing,'' and size-building drugs -- an array far broader than the few drugs singled out by pro sports.
Patriot coach Berry told the Boston Globe: ``I knew all along, . . . when I began to realize this issue would be part of my job, that what we're talking about is not going to be easy. The mind-set is such that it's like playing a real tough football team. It's a real tough battle, but it'll be worth the battle somehow or other. Maybe eventually a program will come out of this that will be a tremendous help to a tremendous number of people.''
Professional athletes have a responsibility to themselves, their families, and the impressionable youths following them in the game to agree to stop drug use in its tracks.