Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Shining Stars of the NFL

Ok folks, prepare yourself for somewhat of a soapbox post.

As I'm sure you're aware (unless you live under a rock), there has been a lot of talk lately about the inherent violence in the game of football, and significant work by the NFL to contain and limit the number of egregious and malicious hits that players receive on the field.  Following Week 6 of NFL play, NFL Executive VP of Football Operations, Ray Anderson, released a video which was shown to every NFL team depicting inappropriate and appropriate hits in order to educate players on the differences between the two. 

During the course of the video, a clip is shown from that week's Ravens vs. Jets game which highlights Ravens ILB Ray Lewis delivering a hit against Jets TE Dustin Keller.  In the video narration, Anderson narrates the clip by describing the play as "a great player making a great play ...".  

Which got me thinking ...

Now, I'm not going to sit here and try to say that Ray Lewis isn't a great player.  He is an 11-time Pro-Bowl selection, Super Bowl XXXV MVP, two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year, three-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year, and recipient of a multitude of other awards and accolades.  I mean, clearly, the man knows how to play football.        

However, I'm not so sure that Mr. Lewis should be an all-out poster boy for the National Football League.  In fact, I don't think that many of bright & smiling faces that the NFL or private companies often plaster on posters and video game boxes or feature in commercials and advertisements should even be playing professional football, let alone making thousands or millions of dollars on endorsements and ads.   

You may wonder why I'm so critical of these players, but the reason is simple ... they're not role models.  And in reality, many of them are the exact opposite.  

I'll preface this post by conceding that I do live in the real world and have made my fair share of less than perfect decisions (believe it or not).  I understand that NFL players are real people with the ability to make good or bad decisions just like the rest of us.  I do not expect anyone to be perfect, and I truly understand that everyone makes mistakes ... it's just part of being human. 

I also understand that many of these players are thrust into the public spotlight in a way that I could never comprehend (barring any overnight attainment of celebrity status).  A lot of them are treated as celebrities from the moment they step onto their respective college campuses and never look back.  When you consider the tens of millions of dollars in signing bonuses, adoring fans hanging around the stadium pleading for autographs and endorsements by companies like Nike and Under Armour - it's no wonder that these athletes feel (and act) superhuman.      

But, that's no excuse.

Sadly, it's nothing new or ground breaking, but year after year dozens of NFL players find themselves in real trouble with the real law.  So far in 2010, over 40 NFL players have been arrested for a wide variety of reasons.  And I would venture a guess that almost as many have been cut loose with a warning or slap on the wrist simply because of the jersey they wear and how they played the week before (although I do concede that some players are probably targeted by law enforcement due to their celebrity status).  

What a message to society.  

However, I would also argue that society is a huge part of the problem.  We all propagate this current attitude by allowing these athletes to continue to be celebrities and millionaires each time we put on their jersey to watch a game, and each time we simply sigh & shake our head when they get arrested ... again. 

But, I also believe in personal accountability, and the bottom line is that some of these players are either downright bad guys or they simply cannot make a good (aka smart) decision to save their lives.  

The vast majority of arrests in the NFL are for driving under the influence of alcohol (or some other inappropriate behavior under the influence).  I suppose that's a predictable side effect of the party lifestyle that so many players embrace off the field (after all, if you're worth $20 million - what would you do for fun?).  

But it is still completely unacceptable.  

Ask anyone who has ever lost a friend or loved one to the effects of drunk driving or talk to those who run national organizations like MADD or Arrive Alive.  Think back to your days of high school where they would park a completely devastated and unrecognizable vehicle at the school entrance to send a message to high school students.  Drunk driving is illegal for a reason.  Period.  End of story.

What's even more ridiculous is that most NFL teams have a program in place to prevent these exact incidences.  The program is called Player Protect and it guarantees NFL players safe rides home from wherever they are at any time of day (it operates 24 hours/day).  Like a taxi, the player just has to pay for the cost of the ride.  Or, for those players who don't want to utilize the program or belong to teams that don't have it, there are services in most cities in which reliable, licensed individuals are available to pick you up and drive you wherever you want to go for a small fee.  They're really revolutionary programs, and traditionally, they drive yellow cars just to ensure that they can be spotted easily ... good grief.  

No NFL player (or person, for that matter) has any excuse to ever get a DUI.  For the life of me, I really cannot understand why it happens so frequently, especially to millionaire athletes and celebrities.  Even from a purely selfish perspective, you would think these individuals wouldn't want to risk damage to their luxury Mercedes or loaded Escalade.  But it happens, all the time.  

Just recently, on September 21, 2010 (Week 2 of the NFL season) NY Jets WR Braylon Edwards was pulled over (while driving two of his teammates and one other individual) in New York in his Range Rover.  The officer smelled alcohol on his breath and Edwards subsequently registered a 0.16 on the breathalyzer ... twice the legal limit.  Although the Jets publicly admonished Edwards' actions, he has continued to play every game of the 2010 season.

And who could forget the events of March 2009.  Former Cleveland Browns WR Donté Stallworth was driving his Bentley in the early morning hours in Miami Beach, FL.  According to reports, Stallworth was intoxicated (reported BAL of 0.12) and speeding (10 mph over), when he struck and killed a pedestrian in the street (not in a crosswalk).  He pled guilty to second degree manslaughter, served 24 days in jail, and was suspended from play in the NFL for one year.  Stallworth is currently on the active roster for the Baltimore Ravens. 

What excellent examples for those of us in the real world.  Drive drunk and endanger yourself and three other people while in the midst of the most important time of year for your career?  A public slap on the wrist and a starting spot on the team.  Kill someone while driving drunk?  Spend less than one month in jail, sit out a year and find yourself a new team the next season.  

Quite frankly, the hypocrisy of these situations is utterly disappointing to me.  I am fairly certain that if it was you or I in the shoes of Edwards or Stallworth, our outcomes would not have been quite so auspicious. 

I am by no means am an expert on the law, and am a firm believer in the concept of being innocent until proven guilty; however I think few would argue with the fact that athletes in this country are frequently held to a different and much lower standard than the rest of us.  In fact, in the real world, individuals with a felony conviction on their resume have a hard enough time getting a minimum-wage job, let alone a multi-million dollar contract.   

Drunk driving and public intoxication aside, the much more disturbing crimes committed by NFL players are frequently violent in nature.  I could list report after report of players accused of assaulting their wives or girlfriends, or being involved in altercations at bars or nightclubs.  Undoubtedly alcohol and/or drugs play a role in these situations, but they are unacceptable nevertheless.  And, even more worrisome is the historical lack of action on the part of the NFL.  

Take Larry Johnson, who was drafted as a running back in 2003 by the Kansas City Chiefs.  He played in the NFL until September 2010 when he was released by the Washington Redskins.  In his 7 years in the league, Johnson was arrested no less than four times on assault charges against different women.  

Adam "Pacman" Jones is an extreme example, but one that cannot be ignored.  Drafted as CB in the 2005 NFL Draft, virtually his entire career has been tainted by numerous investigations and arrests.  With charges ranging from marijuana possession to disorderly intoxication to involvement with a shooting at a Las Vegas strip club (in which he reportedly slammed a stripper's head against a table), Jones earned himself a one-year suspension for the 2007 season. In 2010, Jones signed a two-year contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.  He's out for the season with an injury, but would otherwise be an active member of the team.  

In a country in which domestic violence has become frighteningly commonplace and a woman is sexually assaulted, on average, every two minutes; the NFL sets a disappointingly low standard by allowing players with records of violence against women to continue to play.  

However, not all the news is bad.  Roger Goodell, NFL Commish since 2006, has taken a tougher stance against "troubled" players than previous NFL leadership.  Goodell has been the first commissioner to suspend players for violation of the NFL's "personal conduct policy" even when official charges were not filed.  In 2010, Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for four games after allegedly raping a college student in a Milledgeville, GA bar.  The woman decided not to press charges, although emphasizing in her letter to the local DA that she was not recanting her accusation.  

During his tenure, Goodell has handed down three season-long suspensions and worked to hold NFL players accountable for their behavior both on and off the field.  Clearly, it's a work in progress, and I would challenge him to do even more.   

This is the bottom line: we're all not doing enough.  Unless we want the NFL to turn into the NBA (no offense NBA fans), we must hold players accountable for their behavior off the field.  The NFL cannot continue to allow players with felony convictions to be on the active roster.  Kids may know the difference between video games and real life, but try explaining to them why players convicted of multiple DUI's, or assault charges (or worse) are still allowed to play professional football ... because I sure can't.  

It is a privilege to be a professional athlete in this country, and we can no longer allow some athletes to abuse the power that they are given.  I have no magical solution for this problem, except to encourage you to use whatever platform you have available to speak out and voice your disappointment at the low standards to which we hold NFL players.  The next time you hear of a player's second DUI or arrest on assault charges - speak up!  Send an email (Official NFL Comment Form), post a comment, or call-in a TV or radio sports show.  

Nothing will ever change if hardworking, ordinary American football fans continue to stand by in silence and allow NFL players of questionable morale character to play week after week, sign their autographs and earn their millions.  

It has never been acceptable for players to break the law or behave in egregiously inappropriate ways, but now it's time for us to ensure that it will no longer be tolerated. 

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