Why the NFL's off-season is damaging their brand and the players.

 
on June 28 2013 5:31 PM

No wonder the NFL are trying to extend the season by two games.

Given the fortunes of players during the off-season, they shouldn't be putting up as much of a fight as they are.

Wednesday morning saw New England Patriots Tight End Aaron Hernandez arrested and charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional footballer and friend of the accused. Hernandez was held without bail as the gravity of the situation finally becomes clear to all who watch on in shock. It seems the Patriots have already made their mind up on the matter, moving quickly to release the man who signed a five-year, $40 million contract just last summer.

Hernandez wasn't the only player to be charged on Wednesday. Cleveland Browns rookie Ausar Walcott was also released after it emerged that he had been charged with attempted murder for punching a man outside a club in New Jersey. Two extremely serious incidents within a matter of hours than have disgraced the NFL once again.

Whether Hernandez and Walcott will be found guilty or not is irrelevant, their arrests should scrutinise just what NFL players do with their spare time during the offseason. Hernandez was the 29th player since the Superbowl's conclusion to be arrested, a simply extraordinary amount.

As the old saying goes "The Devil makes work for idle hands", something players with too much time and money know only too well. This has been a long standing problem in the NFL for some time now, which has seemed to have escalated over the last couple of years.

So, just what are NFL players doing wrong?

The simple answer should be that they are not listening to the right people. When people, in this case athletes, are thrust into the limelight, they normally bring a few 'hangers on' with them. These are people who offer no significant use to the athlete, yet the person generating the success feels obligated to give them handouts, listen to their advice and assist them in things that should have no concern to them.

A prime example of this was the infamous Michael Vick incident. Vick was the league's golden boy and had recently signed the most lucrative contract in NFL history at the time, a 10-year $130 million deal with the Falcons in 2005. Soon after, the shocking revelations of Vick's dog fighting ring came to light. Along with seven others, Vick had been running an illegal gambling ring based around dog fighting, with 70 dogs found at his home that had suffered some form of abuse. Vick insisted that he was rarely at the premises and was unaware of just what was occurring at the home. However, after one of his so-called 'friends' provided evidence to the contrary, Vick pleaded guilty and ended up serving 21 months in prison.

This incident demonstrates to anybody coming into the league just how important it is to surround yourself with the right people. Vick now freely admits that he had bad influences within his entourage, who were quick to desert him when the money stopped coming in. Whether he likes it or not, Vick will forever be the lasting example of how quickly things can spiral out of control if you don't pay attention to things going on right under your very nose.

The amount of time off these players receive will also come under scrutiny. The NFL regular season is 17 weeks long, going from September-to-December. If you aren't fortunate enough to make the Playoffs, that gives you almost five months of inactivity before the start of Organised Team Activities. Now, for married or family men, this isn't much of a problem. They will enjoy their time at home relaxing with loved ones. For the players who are single, boredom can become a serious factor. These are young men with a substantial amount of money and the more they get bored, the likelihood is they are going to seek relief in places they wouldn't usually frequent.

Adam 'Pacman' Jones has recently found himself in trouble again, which will disappoint those who thought he had turned a corner in recent years. Jones has been a law unto himself ever since he entered the league, suffering numerous arrests and suspensions from the league. Since the Bengals gave him an NFL lifeline in 2010, Jones has seemed like a reformed character. That was until his recent arrest for assaulting a woman outside a seedy bar he had no business being in. In fairness to the Cornerback, he had done a reasonable job of staying away from bars and clubs following the Las Vegas shooting incident in 2007, but this lack of judgement just shows how boredom can lead you back to places you would normally refrain from going. If Jones is found guilty, he would be subject to another suspension from the league, one which could signal the end of his NFL career.

The NFL needs to do a better job of monitoring their players during the offseason. A hard task, admittedly, yet something as simple as more charitable events, regular check-ins for players with previous arrests and better rehabilitation and prevention measures would considerably improve the fortunes of most of the league's troubled stars.

There can be no doubt that drugs and alcohol also play a major part in their indiscretions. The NFL is the most violent sport on the planet and some players have a hard time managing the pain. They use drugs and alcohol as an escape route, which causes constant problems as their dependency grows. The list of players who have suffered as a result of this is endless, with the most tragic of them being Ryan Leaf.

Leaf is widely regarded as the biggest draft bust in NFL history. At one time, many thought of him as a better prospect than Peyton Manning, who was selected one place ahead of him in the 1998 draft. Leaf's career was an absolute disaster from start to finish, he had four unproductive seasons in the league before everybody gave up on him. With nothing left career-wise he ran into legal difficulties with drugs. Last year, Leaf's problems came to a head, pleading guilty to burglary and drug-possession and was sentenced to five years in prison. As if Leaf's problems couldn't get any worse, in January he was removed from a drug treatment facility to prison for violating his treatment plan and threatening staff.

Leaf's case is extreme, but it is another red flag to rookies of just what can happen if your career doesn't hit the heights you expect. The NFL does a good job of regulating drug use and provides programs for those suffering with addiction. It's just unfortunate that once they are left to their own devices, there isn't much commissioner Roger Goodell can do until it is time to dish out suspensions, which needs to change.

That's not to say it is just the single members of the NFL community that get into trouble. Some of the most serious incidents occurred with couples, most commonly after arguments that have raged out of control. We could talk about the most famous incident, involving OJ Simpson, the likes of which the sporting world had never seen before, or perhaps since. However, perhaps even more tragic was the recent murder/suicide of Chiefs Linebacker Javon Belcher.

Following an argument with his girlfriend, Belcher lost his mind, shooting Kasandra Perkins multiple times, killing her. He then drove over to the Chiefs practice facility, where he turned the gun on himself, committing suicide in-front of his Head Coach and General Manager. While there's no disputing the magnitude of this crime, you have to wonder if any counselling would have aided the situation that left a three-month old infant orphaned. This is another element that should be examined to prevent this horrific event happening again.

Players carrying guns has always been considered the height of stupidity, yet they still continue to do so. Whether it is for their piece of mind, protection or just for their image, it is ill-advised. Just ask Plaxico Burress, who suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2008 as he was leaving a New York nightclub. Luckily for the wide receiver, the injuries weren't life-threatening but was charged with criminally possessing a handgun, as Burress did not have a license for the gun he was carrying. He was sentenced to two years in prison, yet another career in ruins over something so needless.

Just what the NFL can do to prevent their players using guns, we can only speculate. One possibility would be to get players to sign agreements stating that they won't purchase any type of firearm whilst they have a contract with an NFL team. If they have safety concerns, then they are to hire private security firms or use security provided by their teams. Failure to do so would result in expulsion from the league.

This may seem harsh and almost impossible to implement, but it is now apparent that lives are at serious risk. Players are jeopardising their careers by carrying firearms, which quite simply beggars belief and Goodell needs to take drastic action to ensure the safety of his players and the reputation of the league.

With all this scandal, it makes the rookie symposium even more important in future years. Their eyes and ears must be open throughout as former players speak about what dangers lie ahead of them, citing their past experiences, which will hopefully act as a deterrent.

If they want a brutal look at what can happen, just turn on Sportscenter and witness the $40 million Tight End facing a lifetime behind bars.

Hopefully, this will be the wake-up call all NFL stars have needed.

Just don't hold your breath.

Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_

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