Tackling Football’s Player Culture

I’ve joked about NFL player’s behaviour a hundred times on the podcast. I’ve laughed at off season antics, at crazy rock n’ roll antics and depraved excesses. But in the last two weeks, the NFL has been struck with a series of tragedies that makes me question the role of the NFL – or even the NFLPA – in supporting and educating their athletes.

On December 1, 2012, Jovan Belcher, linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs shot his girlfriend times in from of his mother and screaming three month old baby. He then drove five miles to the Chiefs’ practice facility, encountering Chiefs GM Scott Pioli and Head Coach Romeo Crennel in the parking lot. He thanked them and asked them to take care of his daughter before placing the gun to his head and pulling the trigger.

The following day, the Chiefs played at home against Carolina Panthers, allegedly after consulting the NFL, Romeo Crennel and the team captains. There was no mention of the shooting at the game, although there was a moment of silence for “victims of domestic violence and their families”.

The response of the media was mixed. CBS Sports actually asked if Belcher was a wise pick for fantasy teams. Meanwhile, Fox derided NBC’s Bob Costas, who dared to suggest that America’s ‘gun culture’ was to blame for what happened. Two weeks later, gun culture would become a major talking point for America after 26 people, 20 of whom were children, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Following the massacre, the NFL would pay its respects with a minute silence before every game, and the New England Patriots gun salute after touchdowns was silenced.

A week after Belcher’s suicide, Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent was charged with intoxication manslaughter, after causing the death of teammate Jerry Brown. For the second week in a row, the NFL cried that “the show must go on” and the Cowboys hit the field 24 hours later.

Two devastating weeks for football, followed a week later by a national tragedy. But in the heartless business world of the National Football League, I can’t help but think the Sandy Hook Massacre has let the NFL off the hook somewhat.

What I mean by that is the focus has shifted entirely to gun culture. Both the Belcher shooting and Sandy Hook involved legally possessed firearms. Bob Costas, derided by Fox, has been vilified and the NFL can shift its focus away from their own cultures and practices that make players the way they are, to an American propensity for guns.

For the sake of examining the sport, let’s take guns out of the equation.
For two weeks running, NFL players took lives, regardless of means. Belcher had suffered a mild concussion a few weeks previous, was addicted to painkillers and drank on a daily basis. Brent was driving a vehicle whilst intoxicated. My question is; why do these players act out like this? They behave in a rockstar fashion, reckless and irresponsible. What has created this culture in the NFL and what should the league or, indeed, the Players Association do to combat this?

Let’s go back to when these players are starting their careers. In fact, let’s put me in this scenario.
Little Dave Griffiths is a wide receiver for his high school football team. Unlike the real Dave Griffiths, he’ll last longer than thirty seven minutes on a football field. His parents earn enough to get by, but he can’t afford college. Besides, he’s not doing particularly well in class, what with spending all his time practicing for Friday’s game.

His grades suffer, but coach tells him he’ll make a career in football if he only concentrates on the game. Dave throws all his eggs in one basket. Hell, Dave can worry about his grades once he gets that football scholarship.

Young Dave’s dream comes true. He gets his scholarship and he’ll be playing on an NCAA team in front of 100,000 people and a national television audience every game. He even gets to record one of those little graphic overlays, were he tells you his name for during the broadcast. How cool is that?

Of course, Dave’s a student athlete (or for South Park fans, ‘stoo-dent ath-uh-leet’) and so he can’t be paid for playing. His college takes millions in television rights alone, his head coach earns a damn fortune. But Dave’s just lucky to be in college, having his education paid for, right?

Behind closed doors, there’s backhand payments – sponsorship deals, incentives. Why the hell does Dave need to earn any money? They’ve given him a car, some fine clothes, he’s got it made! As for grades, he’s not here to learn. He’s here to play football. He’s a celebrity on campus, his exploits on the field seen by millions of people. And so he starts skipping classes. What’s the college gonna do? Kick out their top wide receiver? No way!

So now Dave is getting stuff given to him for being awesome, he doesn’t have to study because he’s too busy being awesome and when he graduates, he’ll be a first round draft pick, play for Green Bay and earn a fortune because he’s awesome.

And he gets drafted. He doesn’t have to go first overall to earn a couple of million. He’s now playing on the biggest stage of them all, still getting his sponsorships, still getting incentives, but now…he’s getting paid shitloads of money, too!

And so young David does what the hell he wants. Always wanted a big house, five cars? Done. Always wanted a collection of guns? Done. Party all night and race home in his sportscar? Pfft. I can pay the fine.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. And if it doesn’t end in the kind of tragedy that befell Belcher or Brent, it ends with a retired or washed-up football player, who’s pissed all his money away and never cared to get those grades to qualify him for a good job.

The key to all this is ‘Entitlement’.
By the time players reach the NFL, they’re spoiled brats, kids in the proverbial candy store. Yes, they’ve worked hard at their craft to play to such a high professional standard, but the schools, colleges and universities are guilty of giving these kids anything they ever wanted to keep them playing. It’s good for their football programme and it’s good for their wallets, but it is completely irresponsible towards the young lives they are influencing.

A lot of these kids have come from low income families. Playing football for a huge salary is a dream come true. But they enter the college system vulnerable, and the NCAA (or high schools) don’t give these kids enough support to grow up as responsible adults.

The NFL does what it can internally. They run sessions and courses designed to bring awareness to drug and alcohol issues, they have ex players talk about finances and how best to secure their future. They even run courses on businesses, encouraging players to invest in their own company (for some reason, restaurants appear to be the NFL’s top priority…)

I’m sure those sessions are great, but if this is your first big pay cheque, do you (a) listen to the NFL and invest wisely or (b) have a fucking ball with your teammates? I know which option young David would have picked. He’d have been found dead in a gutter hours after that first cheque cleared.

The NFL is football’s promised land. All roads lead to the NFL. So if the buck stops with them, why don’t they exert more influence over College Football?

Here’s a similar example that worked; the NHL, having seen how fast and dangerous the sport of hockey was becoming, wanted to make visors mandatory for all players. The players disagreed. There were veterans who’d never worn visors. By making them mandatory, they’d disadvantage those who had never worn them. Visors are likely to fog up during play, which could cause greater injury for those not used to it. As hilarious as it sounds, having blind hockey players stagger around in to each other, the players considered it a safety risk. The NHL found a workaround, encouraging minor leagues like the AHL and junior leagues to make visors mandatory. The AHL made visors mandatory at the start of the 2006 season. Now players joining the NHL are used to wearing them, and naturally continue to wear them when they reach the NHL. Now, 60% of NHL players wear a visor and that percentage will increase with each intake of juniors.

That example relates to player safety, but it’s a subtle means to change a games culture. How could the NFL encourage NCAA to change the culture of players?

Well, the first thing would be to pay them.
I get that they’re on a scholarship. I get that NCAA rules forbid the paying of “student athletes”, but there are ways around this surely. Pay them for their likeness in the EA Sports NCAA series. Pay them for the use of their image on national television. You don’t have to pay them to play. Call it what you like, but recompense is due to those young players.

By paying them, you can neutralise the incentives and sponsorships. No freebies, you pay for everything from your earned wage. Give those players a financial responsibility. No handouts.

They have to attend classes. I don’t mean their work is handed in and looks suspiciously like someone else has completed it for them. They attend class or they don’t step out on to that field. Or fine them from that money you’re paying them.

Give them responsibility.
Not a pithy “stipend”, teach them how it works in the NFL. Or how it works when you’re a doctor, a lawyer, whatever they aim to be when they leave university. They earn a wage, they use that wage to pay their way.

For the purposes of this article, I won’t use the inflammatory ‘slavery’ debate. But the reality is that these kids earn a whole truck load of money, get none of it, get handouts and incentives, then we all wonder why they go off the rails in the NFL.

Are there any other institutions in the world to which this applies? Daniel Radcliffe didn’t play Harry Potter for free whilst Warner Brothers paid for his education. To my mind, sports is the only example of this bizarre rule.

To put pressure on NCAA for reform, the NFL should be working hand in hand with the NFLPA. The obligation of the Players Association to protect and educate young players is paramount in turning the tide of football culture. And what stronger a message can you send than the League and the Union working together on an important issue?

There are other factors in the murder-suicide of Jovan Belcher, specifically concussions, which I’ll talk about in a future article, but when analysing the impact of guns on the culture and mentality of football, we can take heart in this; ESPN reported that at least seven players have handed their guns over to team officials following the Belcher incident. Each of them feared what may happen if they were caught in the wrong state of mind whilst possessing a firearm. That’s a proportionately small number of players, but it’s progress. If these guys are now thinking of the toll the game is having on their bodies and minds, and then relating it to how their rockstar lifestyle might then affect themselves and those around them, then we’re getting somewhere. But let’s make sure the NFL continues to take positive steps in the development of players, new and old.

I’m Dave, and I know something.

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