When Herm Edwards was coach of the Chiefs, he sounded a warning whenever his players had some free time.
“Don’t show up on Dah-Dah-Dah … Dah-Dah-Dah!” Edwards would say, singing the theme song of ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
That was Edwards’ way of saying he did not want to see any of his players’ names on ESPN’s scroll detailing arrests or other off-the-field incidents.
In the last two weeks, the NFL has been hit hard by two off-field tragedies, and alcohol played a major role in one and likely contributed to the other.
Last weekend, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent was under the influence of alcohol when his Mercedes hit a curb, flipped over and killed Jerry Brown, a linebacker on the club’s practice squad. Brent was jailed on an intoxication manslaughter charge, and it was reported on Thursday that his blood-alcohol level was 0.18, more than twice the legal limit.
Two weeks ago, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher spent the evening partying in the Power & Light District before shooting and killing his girlfriend and himself on the morning of Dec. 1. While toxicology reports have not been released, Belcher was found by police sleeping in his Bentley hours before he went on his rampage.
Despite all of the programs the NFL and the individual clubs make available to their players, including a free taxi service that’s provided in every league city by the NFL Players Association, drinking and driving continues to be a problem in the NFL.
Brown’s death was the third time since 2009 that an NFL player killed another person because of a suspected DUI. Brent’s arrest marked the 18th time this year an NFL player was arrested on suspicion of DUI, more than double the figure of seven in 2011 and closing in on the all-time worsts of 20 in 2006 and 19 in 2009.
“It’s wrong,” Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn said of drinking and driving. “But it happens all across this country. Whether it’s players who do it or everyday workers who do it, it’s something people need to take individual accountability for and stop and understand it’s affecting the lives of not just the driver but other people. I don’t care if it’s drinking and driving or texting and driving, it’s no different. Texting and driving now has become more dangerous than that.
“In both cases, people need to understand if they’re the driver, to be responsible for themselves driving and getting to go where they’re going safety.”
Actually, the percentage of NFL players arrested for DUI is smaller than the rate of the general population of males age 20-29. Of nearly 2,000 players on NFL active rosters and practice squads, an average of 14 DUI arrests are made each year, a rate of 0.7 percent. Nationally, males ages 20-24 have twice as many arrests, 1.6 percent; while those 25-29 are at 1.4 percent, according to FBI statistics for 2011.
But any DUI, especially when it leads to an injury or a fatality, is one too many.
“It’s a wakeup call,” former NFL safety Jason Belser, now senior director of player services and development for the NFL Players Association, said after the tragedy in Dallas. “We know from underage drinking and drunk driving, the prime ages are 20 to 24, and the point we try to tell players is proper planning … ‘If you know you’re going out, have a prearranged transportation service.’”
Not everyone listens to that advice.
“It’s just a shame,” Chiefs tackle Eric Winston said. “This one (in Dallas), you feel like it could have easily been avoided, and that’s the biggest tragedy of it all.”
Why don’t players take greater advantage of the NFLPA’s car service or call a cab themselves? Ask a group of players, and their answers vary.
Some are worried that even though the NFLPA cab service is supposed to be confidential, word will get back to their clubs that they were out late and drinking. Others feel as though they’re in control of their faculties after drinking, even when they’re probably impaired.
“It’s more so some guys’ pride,” Chiefs defensive lineman Shaun Smith said. “If I’m in a situation, I’m calling a cab or another driver. Some guys are scared … it’s supposed to be confidential, but some ways, someone will find a way to leak it. Those cabs have cameras.”
It’s also a cultural adjustment for some players.
“It’s not a player thing, it’s not a money thing, it’s an awareness thing,” Winston said. “Some people grow up in small towns where drinking and driving is kind of common. They’re not used to big-city living, and some of these kids come in the league and they don’t understand what it means to call a cab, what it means to go out properly and do it the right way.
“People automatically assume you’re 22, and you have a bunch of money, then all of a sudden you’re a grown up, and you’re not. A lot of these kids are very immature — they still have a lot of growing up to do, and they don’t understand what it means to go out, have a few beers and get a cab home.”
While the Belcher and Brent incidents occurred in-season, the biggest concern for teams is the offseason when players have more free time on their hands.
“That’s when coaches worry the most about what can happen,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. “You try to educate them before they leave and talk to them about staying out of bad situations and walking away from situations that become contentious. You try to teach them the right thing and hope they make the right choices.
“I’ve had opportunities to talk to players about their lifestyle and about what they need to do to straighten themselves out.
“Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Chiefs Hall of Fame safety Deron Cherry has seen the issue of drinking and driving from all angles. He was a six-time Pro Bowler as a player. He was a part owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. And he’s president of United Beverage Co., which distributes Anheuser-Busch products in the Kansas City area.
Cherry said players should be aware of the dangers of alcohol long before they reach the NFL.
“It’s not only when they get to the NFL,” Cherry said. “They’re exposed to this in college. Everybody knows what they have to deal with in college. We’ve all been there. Even in high school now, they’re exposed to these issues of drinking and being responsible.
“It’s how you handle those situations when you’re in high school, when you’re in college; you should be past that stage that when you get to the league. It shouldn’t be an issue. You should understand you have that responsibility.”
Rather than feel responsible, so many athletes feel invincible.
“Some guys think they have a Superman on their chest and nothing’s going to happen to them,” Cherry said. “There’s that entitlement activity … no different than you see with some of these people in Hollywood. They continue to be destructive … why would you do that? But you think you’re invincible and have an entitlement mentality that you don’t have to answer to the law.”
Does the punishment fit the crime? NFL players who are guilty of DUI receive a fine of two game checks up to a maximum of $50,000 for a first offense. A DUI arrest also gets a player evaluated for potential entry into the league’s substance-abuse program.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell met with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith about the issue of drinking and driving during last week’s owners meetings in Dallas, not far from the scene of Brent’s accident. NFL senior vice president Greg Aiello said the league has been proposing harsher penalties for such infractions, but the players association is opposed.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that we have long felt the discipline in this area needs to be revisited and escalated on a first offense and a second offense …” Goodell told reporters in Dallas. “Hopefully that never happens, but it’s very important to have that.”
Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said he’s not sure how big a fine would have to be to deter some players from drinking and driving.
“I don’t think the fines are a problem (for players),” Johnson said. “This league is full of money. We have to put more awareness out there.”
Awareness for both players and those in society.
“Everybody looks at the NFL and says, ‘I can’t believe they do that,’ ” Winston said of players who drink and drive. “But they go out that night, have a few drinks and drive themselves, too.”