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Is 30 Days Long Enough?

September 11, 1988

Undated (AP) _ The NFL’s substance abuse casualty count swelled to 17 players last week and now includes last season’s leading rusher, a former Super Bowl MVP, a former regular season MVP and a former No. 1 draft pick.

Where does it all end?

Not at 30 days, according to one ex-player who knows what it’s like to face the insatiable urge to go back to drugs or alcohol.

Players who reach Step Two in the NFL drug policy - that is those who test positive for substance abuse a second time - are suspended for 30 days. Those players are barred from using team training facilities.

″The reason for that is he should be focusing on his problem in those 30 days,″ said Jan Van Duser, the league’s director of operations. ″Part of the suspension is medical and part is punitive. We can and have mandated inpatient treatment where our drug advisor and the team physician have deemed that necessary. If a player refuses treatment, we would extend the 30 days. None have.″

What happens after 30 days?

″He’s right back, isn’t he?″ said Mercury Morris, who served 3 years in prison for cocaine trafficking after his career as an NFL running back ended.

″The word they use is rehabilitation. Maybe that’s the reason they’re in the position they’re in. Rehabilitation means to return to one’s former state.″

That’s what happened to linebacker Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, the league’s MVP two seasons ago, who described his slide back into cocaine abuse to ex-teammate Beasley Reece, now a sportscaster for WVIT-TV in Hartford, Conn.

″I really worked hard this off-season to get myself physically ready to play, mentally ready to play ball,″ Taylor told Reece. ″I wasn’t drinking as much. I wasn’t going out as much. During the beginning of training camp, if I went out, I would have Perrier and stuff like that.

″But as training camp lingered on, I found myself going out and I had a couple of beers and the beers turned into mixed drinks. I guess it was one Wednesday, I made a bad decision.″

Decision, Morris said, is what this is all about.

″The player has got to be saved from himself, not from cocaine,″ he said. ″The problem is about making the wrong choice. You can’t use before you choose. They are dealing with the symptoms here. Drugs are not the focal point. Choice is the focal point.

″It’s not about 30 days. It’s about making the individual find out what he had on his mind to make a choice like that. It’s a bad choice they made.″

Then why make the bad choice? Perhaps, Morris said, it has to do with messages.

″If I were in charge of highways, the signs wouldn’t say: ‘Do Not Enter.’ They’d say: ‘Wrong Way.’ ‘Do Not Enter,’ is a challenge. If it says, ‘Wrong Way,’ that sets off the light bulb in front of their eyes.

″LT and those other guys are in the best position of their lives. They have the opportunity to emerge as a better persons in spite of the adversity they’ve been through. It won’t happen for them for 30 days. But it didn’t take me 3 1/2 years, either.″

Dr. Thomas Tutko, a sports psychologist at San Jose State University, called the 30-day substance abuse recovery period, ″a fantasy.″

″Not in the slightest is that enough time,″ he said. ″I’d say it would take a year at least to kick it. After 30 days, there are still the same pressures. With a year, you can learn to kick it. It’s not easy. It’s turmoil. It takes an awful lot to break away.

″The NFL policy is you can’t play for 30 days. The policy should be you can’t play unless you can prove the problem no longer exists. If you can do that in 30 days, fine, but I don’t think you can kick a habit in 30 days.

″I talked to a kid the other day, a good kid, not a mean kid. He told me he’s been through 2 1/2 years of constant fighting and just now feels he’s gained an edge over his addiction.

″When you’re on a drug, your whole life centers around that drug. Denial is the biggest problem. You say, ‘This is the last time,’ and you go back.″

Besides Taylor, this season’s NFL drug busts have sidelined All-Pro defensive end Dexter Manley, running back Charles White, who led the league in rushing a year ago, defensive end Richard Dent, who was MVP of Super Bowl XX, and defensive end Bruce Smith, the league’s No. 1 draft choice in 1985.

″Seventeen repeaters,″ Tutko said. ″That doesn’t tell you how many others might have failed for the first time.″

Taylor was almost arrogant in his description of his first drug adventures, claiming he walked out of a Houston treatment center and implemented his own rehabilitation by playing golf. This time, however, he sounded contrite in his conversation with Reece.

″I’m worried about what’s going to happen to me the rest of my life unless I get myself straight,″ he said. ″That’s what I’m worried about.″

Dr. Arnold Washton, who operates a drug treatment infacility in New York, called those comments ″a conversion experience.″

″It sounded like he was converting his attitude from, ‘I can control it, I’m in charge,’ to ‘I have a problem, I need help, I can’t do it alone.’

And that seemed promising.

Washton said he was not surprised by the number of players who had reached the second stage of the NFL drug program.

″Relapse rates after a single episode are up in the 80 to 90 percent range,″ he said. ″An addict must change the way he faces the world, or he is destined to relapse. So many think the solution is just to not use the drug. That’s like a dieter cutting down on food. Unless you change lifestyle and attitudes, the way you deal with people and your values and goals, the relapse potential is extraordinarily high.″

And what about the 30-day suspensions?

″I would say 30 days never cured a single addict or alcoholic,″ Washton said. ″It should be viewed as a starting point, a launching pad. Otherwise, it is a prescription for failure. The real work is when you leave rehabilitation and must face the real world with its temptations. Structured outpatient treatment is the key. When you call it aftercare, it’s an afterthought. I call it primary treatment. Rehabilitation is preparation for the real work of recovery.″

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