'It definitely unlevels the playing field'

Posted: Tuesday, November 19, 2002

It's not like the kid is short on walking-around money. Earlier this year, Julius Peppers became the No. 2 pick in the draft and the highest-paid player in Carolina Panthers' history -- as much as $62 million over seven years.

Still, his chances of cashing in on a $1 million bonus took a major hit Sunday -- but not because of any sins the rookie defender committed in a 23-10 loss at Tampa Bay. Peppers' line in the scoring summary read: two tackles, zero assists and a sack -- his league-leading 11th of the season and one of just two registered by the Panthers. All in all, not a bad day's work.

But not good enough.

Not for a guy about to begin a four-game suspension.

Peppers has been charged with violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy and only played Sunday because his appeal is pending. He probably will meet with the league's disciplinarians Tuesday in New York, and chances he'll leave town with his sentence overturned are about the same as striking oil downstairs from the league's Park Avenue offices.

Besides costing Peppers at least $235,000 in lost wages, missing those four games could also steal his chances of making the Pro Bowl, being named defensive rookie of the year and pocketing the aforementioned $1 million bonus.

In his last public statement on the matter, Peppers sounded resigned.

''While I would like to provide the fans with more information, due to the legal ramifications I cannot comment on the situation and I will not be able to until the appeal process is complete,'' he said.

Peppers' agent, Marvin Demoff, said the league told him his client tested positive for a banned substance in a dietary supplement. A source close to Peppers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the substance was not steroids.

Substances banned by the NFL are available over all kinds of counters, from the fruit-smoothie stand at the mall to any corner pharmacy with a variety of cold medications. Now for the weird part: All things considered, Peppers might have been better off getting busted for steroids, marijuana or cocaine.

The NFL substance-abuse policy is set up so a player testing positive the first time for anabolic steroids or a stimulant is treated the same: a four-game suspension. If the same player gets caught using illegal drugs, a first-time offense results in mandatory counseling, treatment and continued testing, but no loss of playing time.

''If the whole defensive line was getting high, nothing would happen to them,'' agent George Mavrikes said. ''But because they took a diet pill or something of that nature, they get suspended and the team gets killed.''

Mavrikes' client is Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, who didn't play in Tampa Bay because he's serving a four-game suspension of his own, after testing positive for a stimulant Mavrikes says was contained in a weight-loss product.

The NFL has its rationale, and the truth is it holds together well. League spokesman Greg Aiello explained, ''Athletes who use steroids get a competitive advantage on the field. It forces their competitors to decide whether to use the same illegal substances.

''That's not the case when somebody uses street drugs or recreational drugs.''

Some agents balked when the NFL Players Association backed the league's decision on ephedrine, a stimulant that often is found in food supplements and can cause seizures, strokes or even death. Some implied the NFL rushed the ban into effect only after Minnesota lineman Korey Stringer died in the training camp heat the summer before last.

But the union, wisely, was less concerned with cause than effect. The NFLPA was willing to let first-time offenders get punished severely if that was what it took to get the message across.

''How we first started this policy,'' Stacy Robinson, the union's director of player development, told the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, ''is players stepped up and said, 'Look, I don't want to take this stuff. If this guy takes it, I have to take it or he'll have an unfair advantage on me.'

''It definitely unlevels the playing field.''

As part of a continuing campaign, the league sent all 32 teams a memo this weekend warning they can be fined if they supply players -- knowingly or not -- with banned supplements.

But there is at least one other area where more leveling is needed.

The NFL's personal conduct policy, of which the drug rules are part, currently covers ''all full-time employees of the National Football League, its clubs and related entities,'' but not the owners. They answer only to commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay recently admitted he struggled with prescription drug abuse for years. NFL spokesman Aiello acknowledged the commissioner and Irsay spoke on ''several recent occasions.''

Which is several more chances than most players get.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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