Just Pee in the Cup
When I began publishing my Writers’ Notes in February of last year, my goal was to tell stories that focused on others — well-known public figures or friends — and entertaining incidents. I tried to limit my participation to the narrator or, on occasion, the instigator. Close to a year and a half and sixteen “mini-memoirs” later, and I’ve pretty much exhausted all my stories, although I may occasionally dredge up others that I think might be entertaining for you.
While I play a more prominent role in Just Pee in the Cup than I’d like, it may be of interest to some of you as it’s an inside look at how drug testing of professional athletes (and eventually almost all athletes) began.
Today it’s difficult to avoid stories about the use of illicit drugs in almost any walk of life. In sports, in particular, the subject is a constant undercurrent and, on occasion, becomes headline news. But, if you roll the calendar back to 1987, drug abuse in professional sports was more a widespread concern than a well-documented issue. To keep this from sounding too corporate, in much of the 1980’s I was the “blood and urine king,” the president of SmithKline Bio-Sciences Laboratories, the country’s largest network of diagnostic testing sites.
Lyn and I were traveling on vacation when it occurred to me that the National Football League and Major League Baseball might eventually adopt drug testing programs. Down went the tray table in front of me, and I drafted a letter to Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner, and Peter Ueberroth, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, proposing that they institute league-wide drug testing programs supported by our laboratories.
Don Weiss, the executive director of the NFL operations, contacted me immediately. He said that Commissioner Rozelle was interested in my proposal and that he would like to meet at the end of the following week, repeatedly apologizing for a meeting on a holy day, but it was the best time for him. (Hang on; there’s a reason for this detail.)
So, on Good Friday, I traveled to NFL headquarters in Manhattan with Dr. Ed Kaufman. I’d often chosen Ed, a clinical pathologist with an MBA from Stanford, rather than a lawyer, as my wingman on similar occasions, including several trips to Washington to testify before congressional subcommittees on clinical laboratory issues.
When Ed and I arrived, the NFL offices were dark except for one lonely light in a faraway conference room where we met with Don Weiss and his lawyer.
Straightforward questions. Straightforward answers followed.
After an hour or so, Weiss said that a friend of the Commissioner had a business relationship with a competitive network of laboratories. Rozelle wanted to know how I would feel if the NFL split the business between our two companies. I said it was up to them who they chose, but I wouldn’t recommend splitting the business; the players who had tested positive could fight their penalties using the different testing methodologies of the two laboratories as their defense.
The following Tuesday morning, Commissioner Rozelle held a press conference to announce that the NFL was breaking new ground by establishing an anabolic steroid, drugs of abuse and performance-enhancing drugs testing program league-wide and would be using the industry-leading laboratories of SmithKline Bio-Sciences to conduct the tests.
In a nutshell, that’s how drug testing for professional athletes began.
Now, here’s some trivia that might entertain you.
We met on Good Friday because Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, who would oppose the plan, wouldn’t be in the building. As it was, through arbitration, Upshaw tried to prohibit the league from instituting the policy because the testing procedure replaced one of the limited number of practice sessions in training camp. Eventually, the league prevailed.
Peter Ueberroth answered my letter, thanking me for offering the concept and our services, but declined because “major league baseball was a drug-free sport.” (It wasn’t until twenty years later that MLB established its Joint Prevention & Treatment Program, but in the interim…?)
As part of the NFL’s protocol, each player had to pee in a cup in front of one of our technologists to ensure that the urine collected was actually from the named player, an important first step in establishing a legal chain of custody. As you might imagine, many players objected and resisted, but to no avail.
The first time we tested the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry, their head coach, insisted that his coaching staff be tested first to set the example. When one of our technologists commented on the Cowboys’ cooperative nature, a player said, “Well, that’s the Landry way, but it’s not going to be this easy when you test those bad boys with the Oakland Raiders.”
If my memory serves me correctly, we proceeded with the NFL program for close to three years before formally signing a contract. That makes it clear that not only was Pete Rozelle a visionary leader, his word was his bond. And, as I write this, I‘d like to think he’s smiling down from the Great Commissioner’s Box in the Sky on the program he put in play and its impact on the NFL and all sports.