Let’s be honest here about the NFL: even in its glory years, it was never a monastery. We can point to fine players who were good citizens of high moral character, just as we can point to some unsavory folks. That same Dallas Cowboys team that gave us Tom Landry and Roger Staubach, also gave us Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and Larry Bethea. Who can forget that 1972 Miami Dolphins team, which included Mercury Morris, who would do some time for drug trafficking? And don’t forget O.J. Oh…wait…he was acquitted…
At the same time, violent criminality in the NFL seems to be a greater problem today than in other eras. Henderson, and Morris were problematic, but they weren’t violent criminals. Morris and Henderson cleaned up their lives whereas Bethea, sadly, committed suicide after being implicated in two armed robberies.
While domestic violence is nothing new in the NFL, there is an undercurrent of murder that is happening in greater frequency. Before the Jovan Belcher disaster, we had Anthony Wayne Smith (charged in three murders), Glenn Sharpe, Rae Carruth, Hubert D. Thompson, Tommy Kane, Eric Naposki, and–from the old school–teammates Jim Dunaway and O.J. Simpson.
(I leave out Marvin Harrison, because he has not been indicted. But, depending on witness accounts and weapon identification, that could easily change.)
Even then, while it is not uncommon to read about NFL players getting into barfights and even domestic disputes, we don’t expect to pull up the news and read about an NFL player killing his girlfriend and then committing suicide. The last murder-suicide in the NFL involved former QB Steve McNair in 2009, and he was on the receiving end of the murder. The last NFL player to commit murder-suicide was a former NFL player: James Tyrer, who shot his wife before killing himself in 1980.
While we cannot minimize the severity of physical assault, one must flip the mother of all switches to pull a firearm, point it at a human being who is not an imminent threat, and pull the trigger. Jovan Belcher shot Kasandra Perkins 9 times before shooting himself in the head in front of his coach and General Manager as police moved in.
So yes, I’ll grant that Bill Briggs–contributing to NBC Sports–is correct in stating that the new NFL initiative to curb domestic violence among their ranks failed in the case of Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher. I would also submit that the problem here is not the quality of an NFL program, but rather fundamental character issues. The NFL tends to recruit thugs, and they are reaping what they are sowing.
If there is a miracle, it is that this happens as infrequently as it does among NFLers.
While every NFL owner would love it if his players were all good citizens who supported the United Way and visited orphans and hospitals regularly, NFL teams don’t draft players primarily on the basis of character. Tim Tebow is a model citizen, but he’s riding the bench right now. Most coaches would love to get the next Roger Staubach (who was squeaky clean), but they’ll settle for a Ben Roethlisberger (who came within an inch of a sexual assault charge).
Either one will get you two Super Bowl rings. And that’s all that matters if you’re an NFL coach, GM, or owner.
Until the NFL starts drafting people on account of their character–and that is not always easy to discern–I see none of that changing.
As for the latest crisis, people must be held to account for their own behavior. Murder is a character issue. As is domestic violence in general.
Can the NFL help their cause? Perhaps. Seriously, though, I doubt that anything they could have done would have headed off the Jovan Belcher disaster.
A man who is intent on committing murder will find a way to do it. Take away the firearm, he’ll use a knife. Take away the knife, he’ll use any number of household implements. This is about personal character.
And as Tolstoy illustrated so well in Anna Karenina, personal character is not so easy to ascertain.