Cowboys' tragedy was, sadly, avoidable

For the second Saturday in a row, a terrible and avoidable real-life tragedy has shaken up the insular fantasy world that is the NFL. Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent has been jailed on charges of intoxication manslaughter and teammate Jerry Brown is dead as a result of a one-car accident that happened early Saturday morning in Irving, Texas. Tim MacMahon has the sad details as they continue to come in:

Brent, a three-year veteran, was booked in the Irving [Texas] city jail at 4:14 a.m. Saturday morning.

Brown was signed to the Cowboys' practice squad earlier this season. He was also Brent's college teammate at Illinois.

"We are deeply saddened by the news of this accident and the passing of Jerry Brown," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a statement. "At this time, our hearts and prayers and deepest sympathies are with the members of Jerry's family and all of those who knew him and loved him."

The Cowboys are flying to Cincinnati for Sunday's game against the Bengals and had no comment on the accident, other than to say Brent did not make the team's charter. The players were told on the plane just before takeoff of what happened after non-team personnel were asked to go outside.

In June 2009, Brent was sentenced to two years probation and 60 days in jail as part of a plea agreement stemming from a drunken driving arrest in Champaign County, Illinois.

Just awful, and the kind of thing that obviously makes football seem irrelevant. Nose tackle Rob Callaway was promoted from the practice squad and is likely to play Sunday because starter Jay Ratliff is injured and Brent is not with the team. But the real issue here deals with the life of Jerry Brown, which is incomprehensibly over at the age of 25, and the life of Brent, 24, which will never be the same after he apparently made one of the stupidest mistakes an adult human can make -- and made it for at least the second time.

Brent already did time while in college on drunken driving charges, which means the significance of the crime theoretically should have been impressed upon him. Drunken driving is as selfish, avoidable and inexcusable a crime as there is -- especially for high-profile professional athletes, who have myriad other options available to them by the time they decide to go home after having too much to drink. Every single player in the NFL has a "safe rides" program available to him courtesy of the NFL Players Association. Many teams also offer "safe rides" programs, which provide players with a phone number they can call for a ride at any time, anywhere in the United States. And if for some reason a player doesn't want to reach out for help from such a program, he certainly can always call a cab.

The decision to get behind the wheel of a car after you've had too much to drink is flatly irresponsible -- whether you play NFL football or not. But there were a number of NFL drunken driving cases this offseason, including the Giants' David Diehl, the Lions' Nick Fairley and the Jaguars' Justin Blackmon. And although none of those cases resulted in anyone getting injured or killed, this is not the first case in league history that has. It serves as a reminder of why it's so important for the league to make its players aware of the seriousness of the issue, and the number of drunken driving cases the league still deals with serves as a reminder that the message isn't sinking in.

This is an issue that doesn't get treated seriously enough -- by our sports leagues or by our society in general. Even after reading the story of Brent and Brown, people all over Texas and the rest of the United States are going to climb into their cars later tonight after having too much to drink. Some of those people will even be pro athletes with solutions available to them that aren't available to the rest of us. The majority will arrive safely home in spite of their irresponsible decision, and every such success unfortunately makes it more likely that the driver in question will do it again at some point in the future.

The NFL and the NFLPA would do well to make this issue a higher, more public priority going forward than they have in the past. Whether that means working harder to raise awareness, imposing stronger discipline for such violations or some other solution, it needs to be done. What the NFL and its players do gets noticed, and it's even possible that if the league made drunken driving a point of emphasis, the rest of our society would start to take it more seriously. There's nothing to lose by trying harder on this and taking the problem more seriously, and if nothing changes, then what happened Saturday morning in Irving, Texas, is just going to keep happening.