How to Fix the NFL's DUI Epidemic Before It Gets Worse
Drinking and driving in the NFL has become a serious problem, and it is past the time to do something about it.
On July 20, Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt was arrested in Fort Campbell between Kentucky and Tennessee. This was Britt's eighth arrest since being drafted in 2009. The day before, Chiefs defensive back Donald Washington was pulled over for speeding and charged with a DUI and possession of marijuana. Just a day before Washington, Marshawn Lynch was pulled over and charged with his own DUI.
Interestingly enough, although this isn't Lynch's first run-in with authorities, it is his first alcohol offense, and many question whether or not he will be suspended.
The NFL has a substance abuse policy which includes both alcohol abuse and alcohol-related offenses. It reads:
The Commissioner will review and may impose a fine, suspension, or other appropriate discipline if a player is convicted of or admits to a violation of the law...If the Commissioner finds that there were aggravating circumstances, including but not limited to felonious conduct or serious injury or death of third parties, and/or if the player has had prior drug or alcohol-related misconduct, increased discipline up to and including suspension may be imposed.
Discipline for a second or subsequent offense is likely to be a suspension, the duration of which may escalate for repeat offenses.
Currently, while that policy may sound quaint, it clearly isn't working. The time has come for the NFL to fix its DUI problem. These are three suggestions to the NFL to attempt to do so:
Acknowledge You Have a Problem
This has been a long offseason for NFL fans and media—not "lockout long," but long nonetheless. Dave Birkett tweeted:
That makes 7 arrests in 7 months for the Lions. Mercifully, this offseason is coming to an end.— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) July 22, 2012
Most of us who got into sports media didn't do so to consistently read legal documents and study suspension policies. Thanks to Bountygate and the NFL's countless stream of arrests, this offseason (like the last) was spent doing just that.
Fans, too, are sick of these countless headlines, whether it strikes their team or another. Calls of "pampered athlete" are just as loud as during last year's lockout, and fans want to know when enough will finally be enough.
Goodell and the league offices, however, have been almost entirely silent.
Out of the individual team front offices, empty platitudes and form-letter press releases do little more than fill space and waste our collective time. What good is an organization saying that they are "embarrassed" or "disappointed" for the fifth or sixth time in a row from the same players and the same types of infractions?
Take DUIs Seriously...and Force Players To As Well
According to M.A.D.D., 10,228 people were killed and nearly 350,000 were injured as a result of drunk driving in 2010.
Those aren't minor numbers, and driving under the influence isn't ever a victimless crime. Sure, the NFL players this offseason have been lucky to have not injured or killed anyone, but not all NFL players have that luxury.
Leonard Little, now retired, will always live with the guilt of a 1998 incident where he drunkenly crashed into another car, killing the mother inside. Little's tale could be cautionary, but instead, numerous NFL players are seemingly asking for the same thing to happen to them.
When tragedy does strike again—and it will—every player that contributed to this culture will be complicit. Every player who looked another way when his teammate left the club will have that guilt on his shoulders.
This is a serious problem, and the NFL doesn't seem to be taking it seriously at all.
This isn't a new problem either; it's just starting to be reported more. I mused on Twitter that these DUIs had to have happened in the past as well and had to have been overlooked, and I asked the question of what percentage of athlete DUIs were overlooked in the past.
Former Raider and current B/R featured columnist Ryan Riddle provided his estimation with this tweet:
@Schottey 95%— Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle) July 20, 2012
The NFL needs to revisit how they respond to DUIs and pass that sense of seriousness onto the players as well.
What exactly does that mean?
Should the NFL Have a Zero Tolerance Policy About DUIs?
Zero tolerance is truthfully the only way to stamp out this issue within the NFL. Drive drunk and you don't play that season, period. See you next year.
Seem overboard? Probably—many of these infractions are misdemeanors. But this problem has been bubbling to the surface for years and either needs to be removed from the heat entirely, or the NFL will risk having it boil over.
There is no excuse for drunk driving, no extenuating circumstances that would ever necessitate anything less than the harshest of punishment. By under-disciplining for years, the league has helped create this problem; and this is the easiest solution.
Partner With The NFLPA To Provide Alternatives
Practically speaking, the NFL can dole out all the punishments they want, but players are still human and will still make mistakes. So, it is important to provide a wide variety of alternatives in addition to punitive measures.
Technology has reached the point where cars can be kept from starting unless a breathalyzer test has been passed.
The NFL should partner with the NFLPA and facilitate players who may want to opt in for an extra layer of protection prior to their inhibitions being lowered after a night on the town. Would many players actually opt in? Probably not, at least at first, but many teams and agents would likely encourage it.
More importantly, having the technology readily available could lead to mandatory usage by previous offenders.
Mentoring programs, too, could help younger players as they adapt to NFL life. While players of all ages are still prone to poor decisions, rookies can always use more help, as many are handed millions of dollars with very little support system outside of old friends and hangers-on. Many of these infractions happen when players go home, so the added accountability of "checking in" with a mentor could stave off some of the bad acts.
Finally, the NFL and NFLPA need to go back to the drawing board with a taxi program for NFL players. Once upon a time, the NFL provided a free ride program, serviced primarily by off-duty cops. However, the players were worried tabs were being kept on them by the league offices, and the NFLPA took the program over. For $85 an hour, the service is available 24/7 and will both drive you home and tow your car.
How could this program be better? Simply by giving the players no reason not to use it. Making the program free (cost offset by rising dues and league contribution), removes any excuse a player might have.
Are any of these perfect solutions? No, rather these are steps along the path to finally fixing a problem the NFL has had for too long, and one that is becoming increasingly visible.
Most off all, by taking a strong stance against drunk driving, the NFL finally takes the lead on an issue to which they've merely given lip-service for too long. It sets the tone for a national conversation on drunk driving with one of the country's most powerful entities at the forefront.
It's past time to fix the NFL's DUI problem. Your move, Goodell.
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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