With more off-season press about criminal activity than team acquisition, the NFL is rapidly devolving into the “National Felony League.” Just over the past two weeks, the news cycle has handed off a Darren Sharper serial rape conviction to an Aaron Hernandez murder conviction, which then passed a hail mary downfield to a child-abuser Adrian Peterson reinstatement. When one expands past these two-Sundays worth of coverage, literal seasons of malfeasance appear that show a shocking criminal trend in the sport that is considered America’s game.
The rapid fall of one-time Patriot star, Aaron Hernandez, is perhaps the most glaring example of the pervasive criminal problem plaguing the National Football League. With a $40 million contract, the talented Hernandez seemed to be poised for a successful career in football. Even with unimaginable wealth, the young man with a dubious past of gang association and poor influences could not escape the legacy of his beginnings. Court testimony during his capital murder trial exposed years of illicit drug use including the abuse of angel dust, a PCP derivative drug that causes aggressive behavior and mood swings. The fact that league officials never uncovered this drug use even with routine off-season drug-testing protocol would indicate a marked failure of the NFL to police its own until it was too late.
Fans love the brutal conquests of their favorite gladiators every autumn Sunday afternoon. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for these titans to limit their aggression to the playing field. Video of the 210-pound Ray Rice clubbing his girlfriend to the floor of an elevator in Atlantic City was disturbing to anyone watching. It was apparently not as disturbing to league officials who reportedly sat on the video for months before being shamed into taking more punitive action against Rice than the initial two-game suspension. Violating the NFL’s substance abuse rules carries a more stringent penalty than felony aggravated assault – Rice’s eventual charge. In a similar case of aggression-control issues, Viking pro-bowler Adrian Peterson was just this week reinstated after a season suspension for a child-abuse conviction in Texas.
The no-contest plea of former pro star, Darren Sharper, this week on serial rape charges thrust the league’s sexual assault issues right back into the spotlight. Although Sharper’s offenses occurred after his retirement from the NFL, there are countless high-profile instances of high-testosterone, low-accountability young athletes taking advantage of their celebrity and exploiting women. Steelers Superbowl Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has been at the center of two sexual assault investigations in just one calendar year. Giants star Lawrence Taylor was convicted of raping a 16 year-old prostitute. Earlier this year, the NFL’s projected first-round draftee, Jameis Winston, had sexual assault charges dismissed but is now being sued civilly by the alleged victim. Critics say that shoddy police work and conspiratorial college cover-up are the only factors that saved Winston from a drawn-out court proceeding and prosecution.
Although branding the NFL devolution with the moniker of “national felony league” seems a bit audacious at first glance, when one compares the statistics of arrests per capita for NFL players against the general public, an alarming pattern appears. Of all criminal charges involving NFL athletes, the three most common were DUI (driving under the influence), assault, and weapons charges. In 2010, NFL players had an annual DUI rate of 8.3 per 1000. This rate is 81 percent higher than the general American population rate of DUI convictions per thousand. The 7.4 per 1000 player assault rate for the NFL is 34 percent higher than that of the public. At 2.2 per 1000, the weapons charges against NFL players are an astounding 324 percent higher than the general public.
To its credit, the league has tried to address this dangerous behavioral trend of its stars with intervention and education. Mandatory education and training was instituted at all 32 clubs for all staff and players. The league has updated its personal conduct policies and has cracked down on offenders with punitive discipline and fines. The NFL has also organized critical response teams to deal with incidents as they arise and has attempted to drive the narrative toward change. Critics wonder if it is too little, too late to change a culture of abuse that pervades the league.
News of these fallen stars leaves more questions than answers. Young men who are sheltered from responsibility and accountability throughout their athletic careers are thrown to the wolves of their own weaknesses with multi-million dollar contracts. They make the poor choices but they are aided and abetted by team owners that offer glory without guidance. As is in the case of Aaron Hernandez, who is now incarcerated for life mere miles from his one-time gladiatorial coliseum, these heinous heroes bear the brunt of the ultimate failure of the NFL to protect them – from themselves. With this criminal misplacement of priorities, the NFL is devolving into a national felony league.
Opinion By Chris Marion