Tragic Saturday: NFL must act

There comes a point where grieving, lamenting and wondering why these tragedies have happened just isn't enough. At some point, accountability and responsibility come into question.

That's where the NFL sits today, as it has lost its second player in a week for what amounts to disturbingly poor judgment. For a league that has talked about player safety, player conduct and the value of "protecting the shield," it's time to rethink how it's addressing some of the less discussed issues affecting its brand.

The latest tragedy involves the Dallas Cowboys. Police arrested nose tackle Josh Brent early Saturday morning after a one-vehicle crash that led to the death of linebacker Jerry Brown. Brent faces a charge of intoxication manslaughter and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the second-degree felony. This was the second time in the past three years that he has been arrested for an offense related to drunken driving.

Add that story to the one involving Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before shooting himself last Saturday morning during a domestic issue gone horribly wrong.

The details may be different, but the larger point shouldn't be missed. The dirtiest of the NFL's little secrets -- drunken driving, domestic violence and guns -- have become major headlines. The time for relegating them to secondary status in the news cycle has passed.

Sure, the league is at its best with the most controversial of topics. It has been eager to answer the matter of concussions in recent years (by stifling on-field violence), the transgressions of its biggest stars (such as the dogfighting scandal that led to federal imprisonment for Michael Vick) and the fallout of the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. The problem is that drunken driving, domestic violence and gun possession don't seem to rate nearly as high on the league's list of issues that must be addressed. They get treated as if they are more correctable issues than they actually are, the kind that can be handled with simple condemnation by commissioner Roger Goodell or a few thoughtful seminars at the league's rookie symposium.

The reality is that these problems have existed for years. One tragic death is already too many for the NFL. Two tells us that some players aren't nearly as in control of their actions as they might think. How many drunken driving stories have we heard in this year alone? How many tales of domestic violence get reported every season? An alarming number of NFL players find it necessary to own a gun.

It's not that the league is any different from society at large in that regard. People drive drunk all the time. Domestic violence is so common that more than three women are murdered every day in the United States by their husband or boyfriend, according to the Domestic Violence Resource Center. Gun control has been a constant debate for decades, and that won't end any time soon.

It's that the league is supposed to hold itself to a higher standard. That's what Goodell is always preaching. It's the country's most popular sport, this game that has become a drug to so many giddy fans. If the NFL truly is going to carry that mantle, it needs to take the lead on these issues. It must start cracking down in ways that will elicit significant changes.

This is the same league that has no problem suspending a player for taking too many borderline shots at the heads of defenseless receivers. The NFL will drop a five-figure fine the second some tackler gets too close to Tom Brady's knees. It does this because it says it wants to change the culture of the game. Talk to enough people in the league office and they'll gloat over how heavy-handed punishment has re-educated several players regarding violence in the game. That same approach has to be taken with drunken driving, domestic violence and guns.

The drinking problem is beyond comprehension especially because pro athletes have more than enough means to avoid getting behind the wheel with an illegal blood-alcohol content. They can pay for cabs or private drivers, and the league offers free rides in major cities for players who have had one too many. For Brent to allegedly be operating a car with any booze in his system after pleading guilty to drunken driving in June 2009 defies all logic. At the very least, repeat offenders should face long-term suspensions.

The matter of domestic violence is tougher to control, but steps can be taken there as well. While the league has suspended players for domestic violence arrests in recent years, it's worth finding ways to be proactive instead of just reactive. Certainly, there can be more counselors made available for players who feel their relationships are becoming uncontrollable. Whatever the case, we can't minimize these issues as private matters or shrug when a knife is pulled or a punch is thrown. When someone such as former Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Steve McNair is shot in his sleep by his mistress, we shouldn't see it as just an isolated matter either.

Finally, there has already been plenty said about guns in the wake of the Belcher tragedy. This much is worth adding: There is no legal issue with people owning guns. Where it becomes a serious problem is when the people owning them don't have proper training or an adequate understanding of the consequences that come with them. The league could create its own systems for educating these young men on the dangers involved -- either by having police do the training or victims of gun violence tell their stories. In other words, somebody should have been asking Belcher why he needed to own eight guns when he lived in a Kansas City suburb.

Yes, there is an inherent danger in this type of thinking. It borders on painting the NFL with too broad of a brush, of making all players seem like potential suspects. That's also the rub in all this. Too many people have hidden behind the excuse that these matters affect only the knuckleheads of the world, as if those with more maturity are completely infallible.

When you break it down, any of us can be affected by what's being discussed here. Even if you don't drink and drive, you could get into an accident with someone who did. A simple argument can explode into a scuffle between a husband and wife. In the worst of circumstances, a gun can fire in the split second it takes a man like Belcher to decide he's had enough.

The point is that the actions are secondary. It's the decision-making that can be so easily flawed in all these areas.

So here's to hoping the NFL office -- and the NFL Players Association, for that matter -- is in full-scale crisis mode today. Don't give us moments of silence, somber press releases or predictable words about how sad a week this has been. Give us something that is tangible, something that can help these players avoid future disasters.

Give us the one thing that has been missing in the first place: a serious plan of action.