Distance has a way of making us look foolish. That’s not a reference to draw plays on third and long, or even when a hefty lineman recovers a fumble for a long-winded (and almost always hilarious) touchdown. It’s an allusion to the embarrassment we feel when we’re reminded of our history.
It seems almost impossible to believe that the Washington Redskins had to be threatened with legal action by the President of the United States before the team would sign African American players to its roster in 1962. It’s equally difficult to remember that a steroid-fueled Lyle Alzado was allowed to run rampant on offenses through the seventies and eighties. While problems resulting from racism and performance enhancing drug use haven’t been completely resolved, the fact that such practices weren’t more eagerly condemned at the time is now a cause for mortification.
It’s with this in mind that I imagine future generations having difficulty accepting the current inherent tolerance of drinking and driving present at every level of the National Football League. This disturbing practice came to its zenith this past Sunday when Josh Brent, a week removed from being charged with driving under the influence and intoxication manslaughter, found himself on the sidelines watching his team, the Dallas Cowboys, take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While it was reported that Brent’s presence on the sidelines was the result of urging from his teammates, there was one teammate who couldn’t support or object. In the wee hours of Dec. 8, Jerry Brown, a member of the Cowboys practice squad, was killed when the car he was in, driven by Brent, hit a curb, flipped, and caught fire. After the fatal collision, Brent’s blood alcohol level was recorded as 0.18, which is more than twice the legal limit in the region. According to one source, such a percentage of alcohol for someone of Brent’s size would require approximately 20 shots of liquor over a four-hour period.
Adding emphasis to the tragedy of Brown’s death is that the NFL has put measures in place beyond the policies of any other professional sports league to avoid players driving under the influence of alcohol. Unfortunately, the shocked and appalled condescension of the moral grand standers has been directed at Brent’s presence on the sidelines rather than behind the wheel of his vehicle while fortified with alcohol. Being upset with a team’s eagerness to forgive and forget is a bit like complaining about the lack of color coordination for whatever material accessorizes the pelt of an endangered species.
Brent’s fatal decision to drive drunk reveals a massive disconnect between the availability of safe alternatives and understanding the importance of using transportation that’s less likely to cause harm. In addition to a driving service offered by the NFLPA, several teams offer similar safe ride programs at no cost at all to the player. Unfortunately, the NFL is learning that a tool is only useful in the hands of those who know how to use it.
While the mental image of Brown trapped in the passenger side of a burning vehicle, begging futilely for life-saving assistance through the flames and smoke, should offer football players the costliest of lessons, the type of ignorance that causes a privileged idiot to elect to operate a luxury sedan after drinking to excess isn’t easily renovated.
This staggering amount of unawareness among NFL players is perhaps best realized by listening to them speak or reading what they write about the issue. In a column for Buzz Feed, free agent tight end Nate Jackson explains why his comrades drive drunk.
Players are encouraged to live in [the suburbs] and discouraged from living downtown with their peers. Too many distractions. But living in the burbs made it tougher for me to get home when I was drunk, and increased the likelihood that I’d end up driving. It’s no problem leaving your car downtown and taking a cab if it’s easy to come back and get it the next day. But when you’re 30 minutes from home with a meeting the next morning, well then, there’s a choice: Do I risk getting a DUI or risk being late for meetings? It seems easy. But if I wake up without my car, I may be late. Nearly an unforgivable mistake in the NFL.
This is the level of ignorance with which the NFL is dealing. It’s an utter lack of awareness that allows a player to present living in the wealthy part of town as justification for risking harm to himself and others. It’s the mistaken labeling of a DUI charge as the worst case scenario instead of death. It’s imagining that tardiness is more reprehensible than murder. It’s a complete failure to assess the real risks of a situation, and it’s the proof that players aren’t being properly educated on why they should take advantage of the services available to them.
Imagine future generations of football fans learning that Washington Redskins offensive tackle Jordan Black was suspended for four games because elements of his prescribed medication to combat post-concussion syndrome matched the NFL’s list of banned substances, and comparing this to the 177 NFL players arrested for driving under the influence over the last decade, most of whom didn’t miss a single game because of what they had done.
All of this makes us want to gnash teeth and pull out hair. It’s so obvious. Don’t drink and drive, idiots. Party as much as you’d like. Do whatever you wish to your body, but once you’re finished going off the rails, don’t try to drive the train home. Call another conductor. It’s not theoretical physics. It’s not even the courses that most of the players took in the first year of their communications majors. It’s a simple premise. Driving while intoxicated runs a very high risk of resulting in harm. Don’t do it. We want to think that a hard line is the answer.
Of course, it’s not as simple as merely stating that the NFL needs to take stricter action against players who are charged with drinking and driving. The league isn’t capable of suspending first-time offenders, given the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. It’s going to take commitment at every level – league, teams, players – to curb this disturbing trend.
With ride programs already in place, the process begins with further education on the dangers of drunk driving, which are far beyond the possible punishments of getting caught. It continues with championing the opinions of players like Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Shaun Smith who said this about the ride share that the NFLPA promotes:
The program is there and I don’t know why every player in the league wouldn’t use it. I’ve used it before when I’ve been out, and I’m sure I’ll use it again. Personally, I’m not going to put myself or anyone else at risk by driving drunk. You just wish everyone felt that way.
And it finishes with the outright prohibition of such despicable acts.
Instead of looking to the past with regret for not acting with more urgency on issues that warranted immediate attention, we should look to the future, where regret doesn’t have to be more sorrowful than it already is. Jerry Brown’s death is sad. It wasn’t made better or worse with Josh Brent wearing street clothes and roaming the sidelines on Sunday. Only measurable steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen again can improve the situation, just as only a lack of action could make it worse.