Perhaps more than any other period in the Roger Goodell era (2006-present), the NFL has been faced with a whirlwind of turmoil over the past eight months, as players are seemingly arrested at a record clip, and not just for misdemeanors.
Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Josh Brent killed a teammate, Jerry Brown, after getting into a car accident driving while under the influence.
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend before fatally shooting himself at the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot.
And, of course, New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is currently in jail, facing charges that include first-degree murder.
While there have been other cases of NFL players running afoul of the law and sullying the league's reputation, those are certainly the highest profile, and they have dealt a blow to the integrity of the shield.
This has begged the question: Does the NFL really have a serious image issue?
It's an interesting query, and the answer is both complex and simple at the same time. Yes, the NFL does have an image problem. To not admit that would be foolish and dangerous. But, is the image problem of the serious variety?
It is not, and there's a primary reason for that.
But first, to help answer the question, it's important to start with the popularity of the league.
In this country, as far as sports and entertainment goes, the NFL is king. No one in his or her right mind could possibly argue otherwise. The NFL is Teflon, a veritable Fort Knox of ratings and revenue, a league and subject that never fails to drum up significant interest, even in the supposed "dead" of the offseason.
Because of the league's immense popularity, its players are under greater scrutiny than any athletes in the history of professional sports in America. The news cycle thrives on NFL information, and, in the offseason, there are a few players who are bound to find themselves on the wrong side of the law. When that happens, the stories are consumed and talked/written about as if it were an actual game.
Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, one of the good guys in the league, recently spoke about the league's image problem and called on his fellow veterans to serve as better mentors to young players. When a player with the stature of Tuck is outwardly acknowledging the issue, it would be silly for someone outside the league to dismiss the claim.
When Commissioner Goodell instituted the league's Personal Conduct Policy in 2007, it was aimed at "protecting the shield" and furthering the integrity of the game. But, is it possible that his authoritative edict heightened the visibility of his players' foibles and put them squarely under the microscope?
Don't misunderstand: Player conduct is a significant issue, and Goodell's efforts to protect the league's brand and keep NFL athletes out of trouble are admirable. But it's worth noting that in the six offseasons since the policy was put into effect, offseason arrests are up 61 percent.
The NFL is bigger than ever, and with all that popularity comes a heightened sense of coverage, so these numbers shouldn't come as a surprise.
Ten years ago, would anyone have cared if a backup safety like Joe Lefeged of the Indianapolis Colts was arrested in Washington, D.C., a different city than the one he plays in, for possession of an unregistered pistol? Quite simply, the uproar wouldn't have been as loud, and the news would likely have gotten lost in the shuffle.
But this is 2013. And with the increased scrutiny on player conduct, there are websites like the arrest database employed by The San Diego Union-Tribune whose exclusive goal is to track NFL player arrests and provide pertinent details for each situation.
These days, every story can be spun: How will this affect someone's fantasy team? How will this shake up the team's depth chart?
With all of that said, the league's image problem is not a serious one, and the reason for that is popularity and money.
Training camps will soon be open, and the preseason follows after that. Before you know it, the actual season will be here, and all the talk of offseason troubles will be replaced by in-season fumbles and touchdowns as fans seek to consume NFL content at a frenetic pace.
Does the NFL have a serious image problem?
That's the thing: No matter what happens, whether it be a dog-fighting ring or something else, the popularity of the NFL is too expansive to be knocked down. The same people who gripe and complain about player arrests in the offseason are the ones buying merchandise and attending games. It's the nature of the beast.
Plus, there are many players, like Tuck, who do so many great things in the community. It's not like the NFL is comprised of thugs and jailbirds. There are many, many exemplary athletes who honor the shield on a daily basis.
So yes, the NFL does have an image problem. But once the season starts, it will dissipate. That means it's not a serious problem.