It has been well documented that Jim Irsay, Indianapolis Colts owner, was arrested and has since checked into rehab to seek help, but its impact on his team may be greater than some think. The billionaire owner was arrested on four counts possession of a schedule four prescription drug and driving under the influence. He was released on $22,500 bail Monday afternoon and has since checked into a health care facility.
The outspoken owner admitted to dealing with a similar addiction in 2002. Since then he insisted on being clean; this recent incident proves otherwise. For someone this well-known, and loved in his community, the whole story has been sad and troubling to watch. The demise of one of the most prolific owners in league history was unraveling in front of us. He is outspoken, brash, caring, funny, improper and successful. He drafted Peyton Manning and revived the Colts twice. He grew a few naysayers and skeptics after some of his many inappropriate texts about his team, but he has never painted the league in a negative way. It has all changed. His demons have been revealed and it is painting a new picture; a man quietly suffering in public. What is additionally troubling is Indianapolis Colts personnel have been aware of Jim Irsay’s ongoing addiction and its impact on his mind and body for years; but could not stop it.
Friends of the owner broke their silence after the incident, revealing troubling developments. They said he has a problem, called him sick, and have been trying to get their friend help for a long time, but were only met with resistance. For years, it turns out, the team has been covering up his actions while he dismissed all concerns for his well-being, telling friends and family they were overreacting. Even something as simple as getting the billionaire a personal car to drive him was a chore. He abruptly lost 70 pounds, a concerning amount for someone who started at 235 and had no serious health problems. He dismissed the weight, saying doctors wanted him to lose it because of all his past surgeries. At his arrest, Darvocet, Ambien and Xanax were in the car, all of which result in weight loss when abused. Irsay has had a history of painful orthopedic operations that require prescribed medications to combat the pain. This is where the addiction started.
In a 2005 interview the owner said that beating his addiction was the best thing he’s ever done. Eight years later it is still a battle he wages. At the end of the day this is not a man who is looking to hurt anyone or is a bad person. This is a man in a high-profile job, with lots of time and money, who has a problem. Unfortunately, it often takes hitting rock bottom to get through. Also, drunk driving should not be an issue in any professional sport. Leagues should assign drivers to all their players and personnel; they have the money. Give them numbers for professional drivers that the league or team will reimburse. Maintain cars on standby for the athletes in every professional sports city. Do whatever you have to. There should be no temptation or reason for any player/coach/owner to ever get behind a wheel drunk.
The Indianapolis Colts have always been considered one of America’s favorite teams (especially after Peyton Manny joined in 1998) and they also are very involved in their community. This recent run in effects more than the owner. This has to be something that the organization can learn to ignore (the media story, not the addiction). Teams are structured so they can run smoothly when an owner is absent. Most owners pay the bills and expect results. Owners like Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban are very vocal figures, heavily involved in their teams and aren’t shy of the headlines. But most come to be owners after attaining success in other businesses, then purchase the team once they are uber-wealthy. The Colts owner is different.
Jim Irsay inherited the Colts in 1997 after his father’s death. But he was not just a rich kid who fell into ownership. He held every position within the organization, working his way from towel boy to the general manager. He knew the football operations inside and out, immersing himself in all aspects, and for that reason he is considered one of the most knowledgeable owners in the NFL. Free agency just started, and now that the big acquisitions have been made, there will be a great deal of deliberation over which remaining players warrant a contract and which to pass on in favor draft day replacements. An owner’s input, as it is their money being spent, could be a make or break decision on any player for a myriad of reasons. For the foreseeable future, the Colts must make theirs without their owner. As Jim Irsay seeks the help he needs, his absence, and its impact, will surely be felt on the Indianapolis Colts organization. Those like Ryan Grigson, their general manager, and Pete Ward, the owner’s closest counselor, will have to pick up the slack.
Many around the league look at this incident as another turning point in NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s legacy. The NFL has always been very strict on players, giving out fines and suspensions like passing out flyers. The league is also very conscious of its image, holding one of the best images of any sport (considering they are also one of the most violent this is a big accomplishment). Players are required to answer media questions after every game, must look presentable and always act in a manner that keeps the NFL in a positive light. The NFL Corporation seeks to keep the game in the forefront, not individuals, even penalizing players for taking their helmets off while on the field. The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy is very strict, and not all players, coaches, and all team personnel fall under this policy, including owners. Those around the league are calling for the commissioner to drop the axe on the Colts owner, some are even going as far as to say he should be fined more because he is a wealthy man. It is easy to get angry and jump to conclusions, but the NFL should not lose sight that this is also a man with an addiction, and he is suffering.
In 2009 Bud Adams, then owner of the Tennessee Titans, was fined $250,000 for making inappropriate gestures to the crowd. In 2010 Tom Lewand, president of the Detroit Lions, received a $100,000 fine and was suspended for 30 days when he was guilty of driving under the influence. Generally, unless someone was hurt, first time offenders aren’t dealt with as harshly. What does not work in Irsay’s favor is that the league also places a high emphasis on the NFL’s integrity (which they try to preserve at all costs). If found guilty of putting the NFL in a negative light the penalties are generally more severe.
The Colts owner is not just any old owner, either. Not only is he vocal within the media, but vocal on Twitter, often interacting directly with fans. The NBA has an owner like this too; Mark Cuban. Cuban has accrued $2 million worth of fines since 2010, none of which involved drugs, alcohol or violence. Almost every fine had to do with Cuban yelling at a ref, going on the court or publicly bashing the league. All these violations hurt the image of the league. The NBA’s image was terrible for a number of years, and after reviving it they, like the NFL, hold league integrity to a very high standard. Not that the Colts owner intentionally hurt the league, but just like every NBA fan knows who Mark Cuban is, every NFL fan knows Jim Irsay. This makes him more than an owner, but an ambassador of the league, and he’s now hurt their image.
The league is expected to hand out a fine for this recent incident and most likely suspend the owner. The Personal Conduct Policy states that those found guilty of violations must also undergo counseling and treatment evaluations. Currently, the Colts owner is voluntarily getting his treatment and taking care of his problem. This is the best thing, not only because he has an addiction, but because he may be able to preserve some of his image. Chuck Pagano, the Colts head coach, beat cancer during the 2012-2013 season, missing most of the regular season and becoming a source of inspiration. He is now a leader in preventing cancer and trying to find a cure. The circumstances are much different, but the Colts owner has a chance to beat his addiction and use his status as a public figure for good. This is his first offense, so the league won’t jump to any decisions, rather, they will wait till all the information is collected and analyzed, then dole out any punishments they deem fit. This gives Irsay time to rehab and make amends, possibly reducing his punishment if he owns up to his mistakes and proves he is willing to work with the NFL.
The draft is not until May, so the issue and punishment should be addressed before then. The Colts as an organization are not expected to lose any draft picks since the violation is not football related, but personal; teams that have lost draft picks in the past include the New Orleans Saints (setting bounties on other players) and New England Patriots (spying on opponents before games), both of which impacted the game of football directly. However, the Colts as an organization will suffer in the long run as their owner has had a huge hand in the recent success of the team. During this time of year, when teams build their roster and plan for the future, he will be absent getting treatment. Once he is well enough to return, he will most likely have to give more attention to maintaining his sobriety and act as a beacon of hope for others, while spending less time worrying about the Colts.
If Jim Irsay seeks to help not only himself, but others, its impact could extend past the Indianapolis Colts and on to the world at large. It is rare when bad moments yield positive outcomes, but this could be one of those moments. Remember Jim (and Colts nation), it is always darkest before the dawn.
Commentary by Chris Dragicevich