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NFL's responsiblity extends off field
For two weekends this season, the game of football wasn’t the biggest NFL story.
On consecutive Saturdays, horrific off-field incidents grabbed headlines. On Dec. 1, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend nine times before fatally turning the weapon on himself a short time later outside team headquarters. Seven days later, Dallas Cowboys practice-squad linebacker Jerry Brown Jr. was killed in what police charge was an alcohol-related car accident involving teammate and driver Josh Brent.
DUIs. Domestic problems. Gun violence.
These are societal issues that receive more national media coverage when viewed through the magnifying glass placed on professional athletes. Players command far more attention than the average citizen for everything they do.
Trying to comprehend why these two NFL tragedies happened should begin with personal accountability. The media blame game then extends to a league in which success is predicated upon the money generated by Rock’em-Sock’em action sandwiched between television commercials frequently featuring alcohol and firearms.
The inevitable question becomes, “Is the NFL doing enough to help prevent catastrophes like the ones involving Belcher, Brown and Brent?”
"I think the league does a great job offering resources. We just don’t use them,” Jones, 29, told FOXSports.com. “I know I didn’t use mine when I was younger.
“This happens to a lot of young guys who come into the league. The first four years happen so fast, you never really get to catch up and realize the resources you have.”
Known then by the “Pacman” nickname from which he is now distancing himself, Jones seemingly gobbled up every bit of trouble he could find upon entering the league. He already carried a rap sheet into the NFL as a 2005 first-round draft pick by the Tennessee Titans. In his first two seasons, Jones was arrested four times and involved in three other incidents noted by police.
The most-publicized of those stemmed from a 2007 strip-club melee that left a bouncer paralyzed after he was shot. While it was a member of Jones' party who was charged with attempted murder, a Nevada jury ruled earlier this year that Jones was responsible for $11.6 million in damages.
In the wake of multiple NFL suspensions that cost him more than two seasons of playing time and torpedoed his earning potential, Jones has reinvented himself with the Bengals. The franchise even stuck by Jones after he was booked again for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest outside a Cincinnati nightclub in July 2011.
Jones has turned enough of a corner that he was asked to share his cautionary tale at the NFL Rookie Symposium last July in Ohio.
He told FOXSports.com that he now takes advantage of multiple services offered by the league and the Bengals through their player-outreach programs. This includes counseling, money-management seminars and even a home-security check to make sure his abode is well protected.
Jones admits he hasn’t quit drinking altogether, but says he now is responsible enough to use the “safe ride” program provided by the Bengals for their players and team employees.
“A bunch of guys use it,” Jones said. “If I have over two drinks, I’m gonna use it. I feel like I’ve worked so hard to get back to where I’m at that I refuse to let a lack of judgment after two drinks affect that. I’d rather call 3-2-1 RIDE.
“This didn’t come overnight. It took a while to trust and believe and really just wise up that this was put here by the team to help you and not because they were trying to see what you were doing or why you were drunk or why you had this-many drinks.
“You have to put that aside. It’s not easy to do.”
SERVICES ARE THERE — BUT ARE THEY USED?
There are multiple services offered by the NFL and NFL Players Association to help avoid drunk driving. Usage is designed to remain anonymous.
Although the NFL doesn’t have an official team count, many franchises offer programs such as the one run by the Bengals that not only drive the player home, but ensure his vehicle arrives home safely as well. The Green Bay Packers give every player key chains that have their service’s phone number.
Rob Davis, the Packers' director of player development, told FOXSports.com he even will arrange an offseason ride service for a player in the player's home city and, if applicable, work through an NFL franchise in that area for assistance. That is an especially helpful option considering most players leave Green Bay following the season for larger, warmer locales.
The Cowboys offer a free ride service as well. So why would a player such as Brent still drive with a blood-alcohol level reportedly more than double the legal limit in Texas?
As Jones alluded to, poor decisions can be made while intoxicated, and the warnings given by NFL teams — including powerful presentations from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) — are forgotten. Sometimes there may be a slow response time from a car service or even unavailability if a player is in a non-NFL city. One player told FOXSports.com that he paid $350 for a two-hour taxi ride home when encountering that problem.
Another concern about utilizing a team service for a ride home is the fear that doing so could be used against a player in a judgmental or punitive manner. Coaches, some players fear, may question their lifestyle choices, or a general manager might express concern during future contract negotiations.
To counter that stigma, the NFL in 2009 handed administration of ride-home services to a league-wide “Player Transportation Link” program that is run by the NFLPA. This anonymous service provides transportation of the player and his vehicle at the rate of $90 an hour, with no connection to any NFL teams.
NFLPA executive George Atallah told FOXSports.com that about 60 players a month use the program. A telephone number is listed on the back of every NFL player identification card, and pamphlets describing the service are distributed at team headquarters and the rookie symposium.
Besides the NFL and NFLPA platforms, players have plenty of other standard options used by the general populace. Call a taxi. Make sure there is a designated driver. Don’t drink to the point of over-the-limit intoxication.
Even with all these choices and a midyear warning letter sent by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, there have been 17 players arrested on alcohol-related driving charges so far in 2012. While the overall percentage of NFL players charged still is lower than the general populace and age demographic, that still is an increase of 10 arrests from 2011.
STRICTER PUNISHMENT MAY HELP
The next step to counter the DUI problem — and the rash of bad publicity that comes with it — may be stricter punishment.
Under the current collective-bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA, most first-time DUI offenders are not suspended but instead are fined and forced to attend counseling as part of the league’s substance-abuse program. As first reported by Profootballtalk.com, the NFL wants to make a two-game suspension mandatory for first-time DUI convictions, but that proposal is facing NFLPA resistance.
“We don’t like to take the position of an immediate leap of discipline whenever we have tragedy in our community,” Atallah, the union executive, said of the NFLPA’s stance. “Obviously, those discussions have taken place. I’m sure they will resurface again. But for us in the short term, the most important thing is to take care of the players and their families and make sure those two communities that have been hit by loss and tragedy have the resources they need. The other stuff will take care of itself down the road.”
PLAYERS AND FIREARMS: A COMPLICATED ISSUE
The Belcher murder/suicide also drew widespread attention to gun ownership by NFL players. All firearms are banned inside team headquarters, though one player told FOXSports.com that his former squad’s parking lot was filled with armed vehicles because of robbery and car-jacking concerns.
Some athletes feel like targets because of their NFL wealth or the expensive autos they drive. There also is a segment of players that grew up in rural or inner-city areas where gun ownership may be more common and acceptable.
USA Today recently estimated that 75 percent of NFL players own weapons, based on anecdotal information compiled from interviews with current and former players. While the league has disputed that figure, NFL vice president of player engagement Troy Vincent told FOXSports.com there is no way of getting an exact total because polling players would be a violation of their privacy and constitutional rights.
The NFLPA claims 40 percent of its members own guns. That is roughly the same total as the general populace, according to the National Rifle Association.
Vincent said the NFL has taken steps to ensure those players and coaches who own firearms know the laws in the city and state where they are playing. Speakers are enlisted to teach about gun safety and responsibility, among them members of the NFL security staff as well as state, local and sometimes federal law enforcement.
Vincent said such sessions are mandatory for all players and coaches during the offseason.
“We show ‘hot spots’ and places that we really recommend players stay away from,” Vincent told FOXSports.com. “We show videos. It’s an extensive education.”
Free-agent NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels believes the NFL weapons seminars try to persuade players to avoid gun ownership by comparing statistical information about crimes that did and didn’t involve guns.
“I think they pushed you not to have one, but this is what some guys grew up on,” he said.
Rosenfels, who played for five teams in 11 NFL seasons, said he has never owned a firearm but admits, “I didn’t grow up paranoid like some other people.
“I never felt someone was going to break into my house because I was an NFL player, but I wasn’t a prominent star,” Rosenfels said. “Guys do get worried that there is a spotlight on them, whether it’s people trying to take their money or break into their car. Expensive jewelry and deep wallets can make easy victims.”
One of those victims was star Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor. He died from a gunshot wound suffered during a botched 2007 home invasion robbery while trying to defend his family with a machete.
In 2010, the NFLPA began collaborating with the New Hampshire-based Sig Sauer Academy to provide a custom firearms training protocol for its members and alumni who chose to own weapons. Following institution of a pilot program in 2011, the first training session was held last April, teaching players fundamentals such as handgun safety, loading and reloading, as well as fundamental shooting techniques. Instructors also reviewed NFL and local firearm laws for each participant.
“I came to the realization that the training is paramount for anyone who wants to use a firearm properly,” said Turner, a retired defensive back who played with Washington, San Diego and Denver during an eight-year NFL career.
FIREARMS EDUCATION NOT A PANACEA
Belcher, who police claim was drinking hours before his murder/suicide, legally owned the gun used to shoot girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, and a second one he later used upon himself.
In the aftermath of Belcher’s actions, NBC Sports reported seven players turned in their own weapons to NFL security. One player reportedly handed over the weapons because he “didn’t trust himself.”
Kansas City police said that Belcher and Perkins, who recently had the couple’s first child, were involved in counseling administered through the Chiefs relating to domestic and financial troubles. Even though the two weren’t legally married, Vincent said the NFL’s player services will provide free counseling for anyone in a player’s “household,” such as Perkins.
The NFL and Chiefs also arranged for mental-health professionals to meet with Chiefs players and staff following Belcher’s suicide.
But while mechanisms are in place, getting players to use mental-health services is a challenge because of the macho NFL culture.
Admitting to a problem sometimes can be interpreted as a sign of weakness and may generate ridicule by teammates either out of cruelty or concern that player can’t be counted on to handle stressful situations on game days.
The league, though, does offer anonymous help lines that extend to a player’s family members if there are domestic troubles.
Vincent said that if there is no police record of a domestic dispute, “There’s only so much as an employer we can do."
“When we do hear about those cases, what we try to do, without being too invasive, is have someone go and ask, ‘Would you like to speak with a marriage counselor or some other kind of assistant?’ Vincent said. “It’s a fine line you have to walk as an employer.”
ASKING FOR HELP NOT A WEAKNESS
Rob Davis, whose office is only steps away from the Packers locker room, tries to keep his eyes and ears open for any signs of trouble. The Packers also have a close network involving player wives to identify any potential issues and to build camaraderie.
“I feel like a lot of what I do is counseling,” said Davis, who began his player development role in 2007 following a 12-year playing career in Green Bay. “I establish friendships. I try to build trust among players.
“I think the (head) coach has a clear understanding of how vital my role is. If there are things we need to talk about, it’s not brought back to a player that jeopardizes my credibility in the locker room. We’ve done a great job with that to the point where players feel comfortable enough to talk to me about those things.”
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy told FOXSports.com that he understands the need for Davis to keep some things private, even if that may have a trickle-down effect on the football side of things.
“I will never break the confidence of the player and Rob’s relationship with him,” McCarthy said. “He’s involved in things that I’m not aware of. If he needs help, he comes. That’s it. He manages so many things that people don’t even realize as far as helping guys with their houses, education, their families and other issues. ”
If an at-risk player doesn’t approach Davis for help, he hopes a teammate will intervene.
“Not all things will be known,” Davis allowed. “In any male-dominated environment, you don’t want to air out all of your laundry, particularly if you’re having issues coping and things like that. We’re constantly trying to get guys to move the needle. We don’t shy away from it. If you’ve got some issues, let me find you some help.
“I tell my young players all the time, ‘If you see a guy slipping, say something to him.’ He may not like it at the time. But eventually if things work out positive for him, he’s going to come back and say, ‘You know what? I appreciate you coming to me with that because I was going through some things.’ ”
Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse said Davis and his support staff stress player programs “ad nauseum.”
“There’s no way to avoid it,” Newhouse said. “They expose everybody that comes into the building about all the stuff the Packers and NFL provide. It’s incumbent on the guys to make use of the services. But we’ve all gotten at least a pamphlet, presentation or had somebody come and tell us what is available to us.”
That doesn’t mean the NFL and NFLPA are complacent in their efforts, especially in light of what happened with Belcher and Brent. The union hopes to increase outreach to incoming NFL hopefuls beginning with the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl for draft prospects in January.
Vincent said the NFL is considering a more “in-your-face” approach with players that will include messages sent via emails, texts and social media.
“Maybe it will just be a quick text message saying, ‘Hey, the safe ride is available,’ or ‘Think about your neighbor and hold each other accountable,’ ” Vincent said. “Going into the offseason is where players now have more (free) time. We want stay in front of them all the time about these issues that have plagued us over the year.”
Adam Jones suggested that the NFL do a better job cultivating relationships with rookies and younger players who may feel marginalized after the impersonal pre-draft scouting process.
“Guys come into the league not trusting anybody,” Jones said. “You get drug tested at the (NFL Scouting) Combine, they get your blood, do this and do that, and you don’t know what’s going on. It’s almost like a meat market. It becomes, ‘I don’t want nobody to know what my problem is because it might affect me getting a job or getting on a team or being this pick.’ ”
THE NFL STILL IS A BUSINESS
The NFL didn’t have these types of programs decades ago until too many players began entering the league with off-field baggage. Then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and late NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw built the foundation of a support system that grows more each year.
“I can’t imagine any other industry outside the military that spends as much time, effort and money on employee assistance programs than does then NFL,” said former Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, who was part of the original group of league executives that suggested Tagliabue institute player assistance programs.
Even with this outreach, Davis — working in his sensitive role in Packers player development — knows the cold reality of the NFL.
“Ultimately in this game, we pay you to play,” he said. “We don’t pay you to counsel you or (make sure) your relationships (are good).”
For those who don’t take advantage of what the league is offering, Polian has little sympathy.
“The most unfortunate part of this is that innocent people suffer needlessly,” Polian told FOXSports.com. “Some people simply cannot be reached.”
Belcher and Brent, unfortunately, were two of them.
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