The NFL is facing a string of bad news about players and front-office personnel over the recent months, the biggest being the arrest of Aaron Hernandez. This is a league-wide problem, and a sports-wide problem, so where does the responsibility rest?
The players who come out of college each year are still young men who have for the most part been treated as something special for a while, and are now getting paid more money than most have ever seen while becoming, in effect, stars on national television. Add in the number of dysfunctional family backgrounds that are inevitably going to be involved, and there are going to be some problems that arise.
Last night I heard a replay of a discussion on ESPN radio. Although I did not catch all the participants, Herm Edwards and Ron Jaworski were both there, and they brought up the topics of just how much responsibility teams have for the behavior of their players, and what can be done to try and head off another such tragedy.
The Hernandez case is extreme, of course. If the allegations are in any way true, this is a hardcore, possibly sociopathic criminal. He appears to have been, simply, not redeemable. The only real way to deal with someone like this would be to not give him a job in the first place. But when you have a player with that kind of talent, he is very hard to pass up, especially for teams led by coaches that think they can handle problem players. And NFL head coaches are vulnerable to that feeling of being able to handle everything - you don't get to that position without having a sizable ego and enormous self-confidence.
And it is hard to weed out the irredeemable from the salvageable. Robert Kraft went public to discuss the letter he got from Hernandez, making his case that he was serious about his NFL career and would do whatever it took. It was very sincere, and very earnest. It also appears to have been a total pack of lies, and given the rather polished and professional tone it took, it is not surprising that the article talked about the help he got from his agents in writing it. What is surprising is that Kraft was taken in by what really was nothing more than some slick marketing.
Some probing, face-to-face sessions are the only way to properly evaluate players with significant red flags, and even that is never going to be foolproof. And most of the cases that the NFL will face in the future are not going to be as severe a problem as Hernandez allegedly was. But can the NFL do a better job with this?
Well, there are success stories. The Cowboys have so far done well with Dez Bryant. Although his issues were vastly different than Hernadez and in no way are a direct comparison, he still had more than his share of red flags, and for a while it looked like he might spiral out of control. But after his arrest in 2012, he and the team worked together to get his career back on track. The evidence so far is that Bryant was completely serious and fully committed to making things work. I don't think that it is any coincidence that his season took off after the charges against him were resolved. He was able to quit worrying about the legal consequences and just play football, and he played it very well indeed over the last half of the season.
And there is at least one other success story in the league that appears to show that even someone guilty of rather heinous acts can redeem themselves and learn how to be a better person. As much as you may hate the man personally, Michael Vick has demonstrated, so far, that he has put his past behind him. It may have taken the stretch of prison time to get his attention, but there is no reason to think he has not turned himself around. He may not be having a lot of success on the football field, but he gets credit for what he has done to salvage a career he almost threw away.
The Philadelphia Eagles deserve it, too. They were willing to give Vick another chance, but they were clear that he had to keep up his end of the bargain, and then were supportive in helping him do so. This is a double-edged sword, however. It shows that there are rewards for taking the right risks, so you can be certain that NFL teams will continue to take the risks - and find out later if they were right or not.
But even if a team is rigorous in weeding out players that have those warning signs, there are still going to be problems. I don't think anyone expected to see not one, but two executives with the Denver Broncos wind up getting arrested for DUI in a short span. That is proof that anyone can make a terrible and potentially tragic mistake. And that will continue to include a number of NFL players. (If you want to be able to see not only how many, but who was arrested in the NFL in recent years, along with what the offense was, there is a spiffy interactive table available, courtesy of TheSportsGeeks.com.) So how accountable are the teams?
It is largely a matter of perception. As I mentioned above, Kraft and Belichick have long been treated as the paragons of NFL leadership, despite a series of questionable hires that are now being looked at more critically in the wake of recent events. And several comments have been made in the Twitterverse over the relatively subdued reaction to the inebriated behavior of the Broncos' management, especially in light of what would likely have happened if they had worked for, say, the Cowboys.
The fact is that teams can only do so much, although they should always be looking to improve. Cases like Dez Bryant show that there are effective strategies to help troubled players, particularly the younger ones, although it unquestionably must be an individualized approach. There is no handbook on this, no set formula. And teams also have to work very hard to identify the players that are just too damaged. But once a team decides to sign players, and has offered everything it can to help them deal with their issues, then it comes back to the individual. The player has to want to overcome his issues, and has to first recognize and acknowledge those issues. We spent quite some time here a little while ago talking about how the existence of a program to provide limo service for players who had too much to drink only worked when the players used it. Josh Brent and Jay Ratliff showed just how true that is.
There is going to be another tragic incident involving violent behavior by an NFL player. It is a statistical certainty. It may be years, or it may be before training camps get started, but it is coming. There will be another examination of what led to it, and what the team should have or could have done to prevent it. The most important thing is probably going to be the personal interview and the screening of every detail that teams can find out about future players (there is ample evidence that teams who really took a look were able to come up with why they should not take Hernandez). But that is never going to be foolproof in this era of draft prep and agents who coach the players on what to say and how to present themselves. The teams can try. Still, some bad apples will sneak through. Eventually, it all comes down to the decisions the players make. Individual responsibility is the only true responsibility there is.