By Rich Bergeron
Even the sports commentators seemed to be in somber moods as they eased into their coverage of week two’s action in the 2014 NFL regular season. Running Backs Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are front and center in the news cycle these days, often leading broadcasts as the top story. Everyone seems to want to discuss how we got here as a country where we are saluting a bunch of sports heroes who suddenly seem to have systemic and exponentially growing problems with breaking the law, drinking and doing drugs (PEDs, prescription, and illegal) and abusing defenseless victims.
The National Football League is not new to controversy. From strikes to player lockouts to rule changes and the implementation of limited replay, there seems to be some hot topic to discuss every year as it relates to the NFL. More recently there were huge multi-million dollar lawsuits filed in regard to concussions and a penchant team personnel had for dispensing prescription pills to players over the years without going through the proper legal channels.
So often, though, the scattered DUI arrests, drug possession collars, and other more nefarious dealings of NFL players are all swept under the rug in the news cycle. Not to diminish what happened to Ray Rice’s wife or Adrian Peterson’s child, but there have been much worse crimes committed by active and retired NFL players that have not received this much over the top coverage.
The league was already reeling from drug and DUI suspensions when the Rice and Peterson cases came home to roost this past week. Most news commentators and anchors are failing to see the forest through the trees, though. The sad reality is there is a wider problem in the NFL with a sense of entitlement. Think of the stereotypical case of the star football player in high school or college getting all kinds of breaks on his academics and other graduation requirements. Magnify that by paying the athletes involved in NFL games multi-million dollar salaries and giving them all the attention they could ever want in life, especially if what they do on the field is spectacular.
Football and popularity is a part of life for anyone who ever attended a high school with a halfway decent team. There are even certain parts of the country where local football rivals religion when it comes to devotees. By placing these items so high in the news cycle, as a society we are perpetuating that problem with how we treat the sport of football and the people who play it. This culture of getting away with breaking the rules and not having to meet the general requirements as long as you can score touchdowns needs to be addressed as a whole rather than focusing on these isolated cases of domestic abuse.
We also have to realize there is a whirlwind of complex and related issues in the NFL threat matrix right now. As the league suffers its share of star player injuries through the next few weeks, the number of off-season suspensions will really take a toll on some teams. Players in the league have been so pampered and protected for so long that some of them really need these long term suspensions and lengthy layoffs to really get the fact that all this is a huge problem, not a stumbling block.
On the other hand, many of these players have also been subjected to head trauma over the years that could explain some of their erratic behavior. Brain scans of some retired players who passed on have shown dramatic problems in the areas of the brain responsible for impulse control and decision making. When players develop the symptoms of severe brain injury such as regular irritability, long term memory loss, etc. they often turn to drugs or alcohol and fall down the slippery slope toward other serious crime and domestic violence.
Either way, this is real, and it’s not a free pass, comes with the territory or look the other way scenario any longer. The drug and alcohol abuse, playing through pain, brain trauma, and special treatment all combine to create the perfect storm of bad brain chemistry. Add to this a heightened sense of aggressiveness conditioned into these athletes in their training and playing environments. It all needs to be put under a microscope and studied to determine the best programs and preventive measures to address each and every angle of these problems so they don’t fester and damage the league on a broader scale.
Even if he proves to be innocent, Adrian Peterson should not be smiling in his mug shot. This is serious, and these players need to remember that little kids look up to them, young athletes want to be them, and fans want to root for them for all the right reasons. We have been all too willing to forgive and forget the transgressions of successful football players for far too long. There is a bigger picture here, and it’s not just a problem in football. This do whatever, just make the shot, score the goal or get the win culture makes every pro sport a breeding ground for player arrests: http://www.vocativ.com/culture/sport/nfl-arrest-rates/.
For a more sobering look at the full record of NFL arrests over the years, check out this database: http://www.utsandiego.com/nfl/arrests-database/.
No recent arrest or incident related to an NFL player is more tragic than that of Former Kansas City Chiefs Linebacker Jovan Belcher. The troubled player’s actions on December 1, 2012 brought domestic violence issues in the NFL to a palpable crescendo. Yet no new policies were put in place then, even though Belcher shot his girlfriend nine times at his residence and then killed himself at the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium in front of Coach Romeo Crenell and General Manager Scott Pioli. Belcher’s blood alcohol level at the time was also twice the legal limit. The case of Aaron Hernandez should not be overlooked, either. There are shades of drug use, gang activity, alcohol abuse, and weapons violations to go hand and hand with the murder charges Hernandez now faces for multiple incidents.
There used to be an old Latter Day Saints commercial featuring a song about how “you tell one lie, and it leads to another.” The NFL has been lying about and hiding its problems with an underlying thug culture for far too long, and much of the trouble making traces directly to drug abuse, alcoholism, brain injury, or the average player simply being allowed to skirt the rules through a long career of amateur and professional play on the football field. It’s time for league executives to admit all these issues are related and connected, and they require a comprehensive and committed program dedicated to confronting them all in order to really change the status quo and keep the NFL news in the sports section instead of in the main headlines.