There's been a bombardment of tragic stories in the NFL as of late. The most recent of these tragedies was the death of Cowboys linebacker Jerry Brown Jr., who was killed in a car crash during which his teammate, Josh Brent, was driving drunk. Now, we’re forced to ask ourselves: What, if anything, can and/or does the NFL do to keep its players out of trouble and safe? Is the NFL doing enough?
As a former NFL player who has spent a few years moving from one organization to the next, I may be able to offer up some insights into the NFL’s subculture, specifically in regards to how an organization handles player accountability.
It would seem reasonable to assume that a group of men in their late 20s and 30s would be fully capable of assuming responsibility for their actions by having the freedom to make their own decisions outside of work. However feasible this may be, the situation is much more multifaceted.
Curfews in the NFL are a reality. What remains a question, however, is their necessity. I do understand the need to control the reckless behavior of a few young men in their 20s who have only recently been exposed to a deluge of cash and are then thrown face first into the world of celebrity stardom. But in reality, the only times during the entire year that an organization implements a player curfew is during summer training camp and on the nights before game days.
In some organizations, like the Oakland Raiders', only the nights before road games have an enforced curfew, usually around 11 p.m. Home games typically have no curfew because players are allowed to sleep in the comfort of their own homes, and knocking on a bedroom door of a home, as they do in a hotel, may perhaps be a tad too invasive.
I’d say most professionals in the NFL understand the value and importance of rest during the season, for the most part. Yet even though they might understand this responsibility, it may only take that one time out of 50 declined opportunities to forever change the course of your career, and more importantly, your life.
If nothing else, keeping an eye on players and forcing them to go to bed early before game day can also aid in player performance, which ultimately leads to more victories.
On the other hand, I can personally attest to the downside of applying curfews to grown men. Unfortunately, in the NFL, there are going to be times when you have to deal with being treated like a child, regardless of how much or how little you deserve it.
I wince at the hypothetical thought of removing team curfews altogether because guys may be tempted to roam the streets of an unfamiliar city. Would a large ratio of players partake in late-night activities on the eve of a professional football game?
Based on my understanding of NFL culture, I regretfully must answer that question with a pretty definitive "yes." A large number of NFL athletes have psychological tendencies geared toward risk-taking that favor high-adrenaline activities, and the nature of football itself might be satisfying that condition.
With that said, the curfew can only do so much as a reliable preventative. Even with a curfew, it’s very common for players to slip out after bed checks. Several guys over the years have been fined or suspended for violating team curfew. Just recently, Stanford Routt was released by the Kansas City Chiefs in part due to missing his curfew.
The times most conducive, and thus utilized, for wild, late-night partying during the season are most commonly on Thursdays and Fridays. These are the nights when the players' workload for the following day is minimal, and it also when the city is most active. Yet these are also the nights when the organization has the least amount of influence in your nightly schedule.
It’s no coincidence that the Jerry Brown tragedy came immediately following a Friday night at the club. I distinctly remember this night of the week as being the most active for my fellow teammates to hit the town and unwind from a tough week of preparation.
Though I never engaged in partying in the days before a game, I can recall several stories from teammates of near-tragic events that would have surely made national headlines. In fact, it almost seemed like a weekly occurrence that a guy would have a crazy party story during a Saturday morning walk-through. Stories about guys pulling out guns, street fights and massive drunkenness were commonplace.
I never understood how these guys would do it, especially when you consider that it takes at least a few days for a night's worth of drinking to completely leave your system. This means that most of those guys that are out partying on Fridays are still being bogged down from the residual alcohol in their blood on Sunday.
This type of behavior by NFL players is a huge danger to themselves and their careers, yet they continue to play this destructive game of Russian roulette as if they live in a bubble, completely oblivious to any potential harm or consequence.
Aside from forcefully keeping their players in bed one night per week, how does the NFL handle the dilemma of athletes partying?
The Rookie Symposium was designed to be the first step in crisis prevention for the newly acquired members of the NFL. This three-day event is comprised of long, endless days of sitting inside an auditorium listening to speaker after speaker lecture the room with stories and advice. To further engage its audience, a speaker would set up an ongoing quiz where the rookies from each team would work together in selecting answers to win points. The team with the highest point total by the end of the event would win prizes like flat-screen TVs.
This event does indeed help rookies get oriented with the pitfalls and dangers of the NFL. But the problem is that the guys who tend to need the advice the most are often the ones sleeping through the whole weekend.
The NFLPA has also been active in providing resources for its players by implementing a call-in service for free pick-up and drop-off of players, year round. This service is also executed with complete anonymity. The problem with this service is that players rarely utilize it due to a combination of lack of trust and/or being uninformed about the details of the service.
An extreme and recent case of organizational intervention worth noting here is ironically regarding the Dallas Cowboys, yet again. Owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jason Garrett decided that the best way to keep Dez Bryant out of the newspapers was to impose a series of voluntary rules and regulations on the troubled star receiver's personal life including a midnight curfew, a strict no-alcohol policy, security escorts and restrictions from strip clubs.
Bryant is supposedly OK with this system and has even avoided all trouble since its implementation immediately following a July 14 incident where he allegedly struck his mother. Since then, Dez has been putting up career numbers, including having over 1,000 yards receiving and nine touchdowns on the season.
Should more players with troubled histories be given similar attention? Well, that all depends on how much talent you have. The more that player a is worth to the team, the more willing the team is to assist him. Teams are simply not as likely to provide that type of individual focus to a practice squad linebacker like Jerry Brown.
So what would be a way that the NFL could prevent these incidents in the future?
Believe it or not, the NFL and teams like the Dallas Cowboys are now looking into mandating a SafeKey device installed in every player’s car. This would serve as a breathalyzer preventing anyone who is under the influence from being able the start the car.
Surprising and extreme as it may seem, this device could actually save lives as well as dramatically reduce alcohol-related arrests. But there is still the obvious issue of where to draw a line on the evasion of individual liberties.
In light of the recent deaths in the NFL, both of which involved alcohol, the line between safety and personal freedoms are presumably now much more negotiable. But regardless of the course of action the league ends up taking in response to this issue, the NFL can only take so much responsibility for the actions of its players.
Even if the criticism continues to flow in the direction of the NFL, athletes must also man-up and take some personal accountability for the choices that they make in life. The time is now, more than ever, to realize, as players, the consequences of our actions. Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to empower himself with the wisdom to make the right decisions and the strength to accept responsibility for his actions and his life.
When it comes to the NFL and protecting its reputation, there are few, if any, priorities that supersede the preservation of a clean, viable image—also known as “The Shield.”