The NFL Has Gone Completely Amuck and It's High Time We Admit the Truth

On December 1, 2012, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend. He then drove to Arrowhead Stadium, spoke to head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli, and shot himself. This sent shock waves across the NFL. Many pundits in the media discussed this horrific incident, offering both condolences to the families as well as thoughts on how to prevent such future tragedies. Ultimately, little changed within the NFL’s gun culture as at least three NFL players—Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, New York Jets running back Mike Goodson, and Indianapolis Colts safety Joe Lefeged—have been arrested on gun charges in the ensuing year.

 About a week after Belcher’s suicide, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent crashed his car while intoxicated. The accident killed his sole passenger, teammate Jerry Brown. Despite a second-degree felony intoxicated manslaughter charge against him, Brent was seen on the sidelines mingling with his team in the Cowboys next game. Outrage at both the loss of life and Brent’s cavalier appearance at the game spread through the media world. Despite this, the crime of driving while intoxicated has not stopped among NFL players. Notably, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith was arrested for both suspicion of driving under the influence and marijuana possession. Two days later, he was allowed to play in the 49ers game against the Indianapolis Colts. Afterwards, it was announced Smith would be out “indefinitely” and now is in a treatment program. But Smith is not alone. Since his arrest, other players have been charged with DUIs as have two members of the Denver Broncos front office—director of player personnel Matt Russell and director of pro personnel Tom Heckert.

Less than a month after the Brent scandal faded, two NFL players were arrested for assault against a woman. First, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Chris Rainey was arrested for battery due to slapping a woman in the face while arguing over a cell phone. Then Seattle Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill was charged with third-degree assault-domestic violence and unlawful imprisonment-domestic violence. He allegedly held and assaulted his girlfriend for five hours before police were called to his residence. Neither case became a national talking point; meanwhile, players like Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones—who missed more than an entire season due to his off-the-field conduct—continued to be arrested for these sorts of criminal actions against women
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Between the end of the 2012 NFL season and now, Baltimore Ravens special teams player Christian Thompson, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon, New York Giants wide receiver Brandon Collins, Washington Redskins defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Andre Holmes, Buffalo Bills linebacker Nigel Bradham, and Cincinnati Bengals defensive end DeQuin Evans were suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse and/or performance-enhancing drug policies. On top of that, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Justin Blackmon was suspended for the first four games of the 2013 season, played in the next four, and then received an “indefinite” suspension from Commissioner Goodell for a second violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. 

The topper to all of these drug suspensions came in the form of Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Miller was suspended for the first six games of this season (negotiated down from eight), not for testing positive for any substance, but for attempting to cheat the testing system while working in cahoots with one of the sample collectors. A first test for Miller came back diluted which triggered the initial four game ban. Later it was learned that someone else’s urine was substituted for Miller’s as he was not in the city at the time it was supposedly collected. While pundits wondered what this would do to the Broncos’ playoff/Super Bowl chances, the NFL and NFLPA conducted a joint investigation into the “problem.” Meanwhile, despite being allowed by the players’ collective bargaining agreement with the league, no NFL player is being tested for Human Growth Hormone (HGH), perhaps the most widely used/abused performance-enhancing drug in the NFL today.

As if that weren’t enough, New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with the murder his “friend” Odin Lloyd. While this sent the football world reeling yet again, shortly after news of Hernandez’s crime, another NFL player was charged with attempted murder. Cleveland Browns rookie linebacker Ausar Walcott punched 24-year old Derrick Jones in the head outside a gentlemen’s club. The blow caused a brain injury in Jones from which he is still recovering. Walcott was released by the team and ultimately indicted by a grand jury for aggravated assault, but the story about his crime was ignored while attention was focused on Hernandez’s murder case.

Yet while the Hernandez scandal made headlines, another incident dealt a severe blow to the NFL’s fading credibility. A few weeks prior to PBS airing a two-hour documentary on its Frontline program discussing the NFL’s alleged cover-up of the dangers of brain injuries to its players, the league asked ESPN to remove itself from cooperating with the project. The network complied, despite the fact that two of its investigative reporters—brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru—were heavily involved, including authoring the book League of Denial which featured the same title as the Frontline film. Since its airing, even more former NFL players, including Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mark Duper, have made public announcements stating they are suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which is believed to be caused by the repetitive head injuries suffered as football players.

Now comes yet another scandal in the form of Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito “bullying” teammate Jonathan Martin. Once again, media pundits and NFL insiders comment endlessly on this evolving story while fans are supposed to be shocked and appalled by it all.

Haven’t we, as sports fans, had enough of this league and its overall behavior?

Sadly, the answer is “no.” As the Roman Empire that is the National Football League crumbles under its own weight, fans clamor to see the gladiators fight. Television ratings for the NFL this season are higher than ever. According to Forbes, NFL games account for the 18 most-watched programs on television since the NFL season kicked off. Super Bowl Sunday has become an unofficial national holiday, and no matter which two teams match-up in this year’s championship, it will be one of the highest rated television programs in history.

Yet time has come to hold everyone in the NFL accountable for this widespread corruption and conduct. These are no longer just “isolated incidents.” They are endemic. Enduring the scandals are not worth the few hours of entertainment NFL football supposedly provides. Fans cannot continue to wear blinders and focus solely on what’s happening on the field. Off-the-field behavior needs to be addressed much more seriously. Overlooking criminality in favor of talent can no longer be an excuse for anyone—scout, GM, or owner—and this ridiculous notion of “locker room mentality” amongst players needs to halt. Examples must be made while rescinding second and third chances if this league is going to regain control of itself. 

It’s come to this. Professional football is at the crossroads. The Devil has appeared, deal in hand: ten billion dollars a season in exchange for wonton criminality and scandal. Does the NFL shake his hand, or walk away in favor of a much cleaner, respectable sport?

Tick tock….