After a rash of reported drunk driving incidents in NFL news, it's time for the players to stop deflecting, stop excusing, stop ignoring and start helping to end this problem within their ranks.
It's been a rough month for the NFL. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley got pulled over in his hometown. Former Lion and current Vikings fullback Jerome Felton made it to McDonald's before he was arrested. Justin Blackmon went back to his college town and blew three times the legal limit when he was stopped. New York Giants lineman David Diehl caused property damage before he was charged.
Before this goes any further, let's clear up one thing.
NFL players don't drink and drive any more than the general population. We just hear more (and care more) about these specific incidents because these are celebrities and, in some cases, our heroes.
Jon Bois of SB Nation wrote a tremendous column, finding that while one in 160 NFL players is arrested for drunk driving, one in 149 of all licensed drivers in the United States are as well. That means we're not dealing with some sort of "NFL" problem—this is an American problem.
This is a problem all of us have a stake in.
However, as the saying goes, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
Like it or not, the NFL is a large part of the problem. These are, for better and for worse, the men our children look up to and our teens look to emulate. As story after story of arrested NFL players (and subsequent slaps on the wrist) invade our culture, the unintended moral of the story is that there are no real consequences.
Sure, NFL players lose a little money, but they're millionaires. They continue to be wildly successful after these indiscretions. No one gets hurt, no one's life changes in any tangible way.
So, why do people (NFL athletes or otherwise) drink and drive? Sometimes it's just a misunderstanding of how impaired one actually is. Others simply don't see it as a wrong or uncommon occurrence.
Personally, I've found that drinking (especially to excess) removes the inhibitions that lead people to make correct decisions about whether or not they should drive. Combine that with an adolescent's normal superman complex, and you get some seriously inept conclusions.
It wasn't a clinical study that led to these conclusions, but, rather, a misspent youth.
I can vividly remember the first time I drove drunk. Coming home from a party between high school and college, it was only a few miles and I hadn't had that much to drink. While the first part of that statement was true, I was sorely mistaken on the latter. Looking back, the only thing I can remember is the feeling of extreme panic that gripped me as I drove (probably far too slowly) and the terror of car lights hitting my rear-view mirror.
When I arrived home, I was fine. The car was fine. No one was any the wiser, and I had made out like a pro. The fear was gone, replaced by an sense of invincibility that would remain part of my decision-making process for years.
Years later, after a night out, I woke up on the couch. I didn't remember getting home or getting myself (somewhat) ready for bed. I certainly didn't remember covering the nearby vicinity in vomit. As I came to, I became thankful for whoever got me home safely and however I got there. Then, as the fog cleared, I saw fast-food wrappers next to my car keys.
Somehow, I hadn't only driven myself home, but into a Mcdonald's drive-thru and completed a (what I assume was somewhat reasonable) business transaction. The night before was a blur, and I couldn't remember much past arriving at the bar.
Meanwhile, in the other room slept my wife and newly born child.
The feeling of invincibility was immediately replaced in my mind with an incredible feeling of stupidity. Of course, I had been stupid all along, but with a family to lose, the stakes had been raised. I couldn't do this anymore; I needed to stop drinking heavily and certainly stop driving afterward.
Looking back, I realize how incredibly lucky I was. I never spent a night in jail or in a drunk tank. I never hurt myself or others. I made it past innumerable idiotic decisions to build a successful life and family (our second son is on the way in less than a week).
I don't revel in the fact I made it through that period of my life; I marvel at the help and grace that got me through it.
NFL players are, somewhat literally, super men. Any feeling of invincibility a "common man" feels must be tenfold in their minds.
Many athletes are coddled from a young age. As long as someone can run fast, hit hard and jump high, he's given a stack of "get out of jail free" cards from high school all the way to the pros.
These athletes are the epitome of what David McCullough Jr. recently (and famously) said at Wellesley's graduation: "You've been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble wrapped...feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie."
Some athletes get into legal trouble and then it just goes away. Others can't make grades, but they're still given scholarships to prestigious universities. Once they get to college, some are allowed to take classes that don't even exist, because their time on the field means immeasurably more to the administration than their time in the classroom.
Remember, this isn't every NFL player and it isn't even a majority. As Bois pointed out:
We're often conditioned to think the worst of athletes. We hear about them, for example, driving drunk, and we assume that they're more irresponsible than the average person. But in terms of DUI, at least...it would seem that they, for one reason or another, are more responsible about it than we are.
All NFL players—the ones getting into those cars and the ones that have the good sense not to—need to become part of the solution.
The NFL already does its part by imposing penalties on players caught in these situations. The league also partners with MADD, funding and running programs to keep players and fans off the roads and safe.
The union has taken over a safe-driving initiative (once run by the league) that allows any player in any town a way to get home safely. Not only that, but it provides a way home for the player's car as well. The low price of $85 is more than a taxi ride, but it's a small price to pay for 24/7 service, peace of mind and 100 percent assurance that no one is getting their mugshot on Pro Football Talk in the morning.
Could the NFL and NFLPA do more? Certainly. This is an issue so big that everyone can do more to turn the tide in a culture (and in this particular subculture) where this is OK. Consider this a call on those entities to continue to do their due diligence to end this problem.
The true onus, however, lies on the players themselves—the players that foolishly make conscious decisions to put themselves in these situations. There is no excuse for this behavior, and there is no excuse for it to continue.
The blame also lies on the players that allow this to exist around them and in their locker rooms without any real repercussions.
Everyone has made a mistake. Dave Diehl has been a Giant for 10 years, and been role model longer than that. He has my full support.— Steve Weatherford (@Weatherford5) June 11, 2012
Think Weatherford would be so dismissive and supportive if Diehl had killed someone? Yes, support is needed, but "everyone has made a mistake" glosses over a much bigger issue. Without positive peer pressure, this will never stop being a problem.
It's easy to point fingers, to say that the NFL hasn't done enough or that the union should do more. Eventually, however, each of these players needs to take a look at themselves and ask, "What have I got to lose?" and "What am I willing to do to make sure I don't lose it?"
Michael Schottey is an NFL Associate Editor for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He has professionally covered both the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions, as well as NFL events like the scouting combine and the Senior Bowl.
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