The NFL has three major problems it needs to address for its own survival. The first, of course, is concussions. The second, caused in part by the concussion problems, is mental illness, including suicide, drunk driving and acts like those committed by Jovan Belcher. The third problem, although minimized publicly, is gun safety and player image.
Mental health and gun control are now in the forefront of the American conversation after the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting tragedy. Athletes, from the New York Giants Victor Cruz to the New York Yankees Derek Jeter have reached out to those affected. Their gestures were heartfelt, but will not change the conversation of the country.
Mental health continues to carry a bad stigma and that keeps people from seeking treatment. Junior Seau’s sudden death this summer was not enough of a wake up call for the league to finally take serious action in addressing mental health. Rick Reilly addressed this issue in his ESPN article “When help is the hardest word,” after Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, listing the players who have also taken their lives. Suicides and mental illness are not going away in our culture. Until the NFL is willing to have every player constantly focusing on mental health, things will not improve.
Mass shootings are not a one-dimensional problem, America must finally discuss new policies on gun control. Bob Costas called for gun control following the murder-suicide perpetrated by Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher on Sunday Night Football. Costas was heavily criticized, but the mass shooting has quieted such criticism. Costas told the players “It’s infinitely more likely that something bad will happen if you’re armed, than that something good will happen.” As more of these guns are controlled by legal means, his words ring out
70 percent of NFL players carry firearms and the press the league receives from guns has never been positive. Rick Reilly’s ESPN column documented a sample of the number of players who have taken their lives by firearms. Plaxico Burress is known for accidentally shooting himself in New York City. Denver Broncos player Darrent Williams was killed by gang violence misdirected at him. Whenever guns are in play, the NFL’s image takes a hit. Until the league is willing to at least address their firearms’ problem and promote gun safety among its athletes, it will continue to leave fewer players in the league and more black marks on football’s image.
The argument will once again surface that NFL players are not role models. They live by their own rules and do not owe anyone, including kids like Newtown victim Jack Pinto, who look up to players like Victor Cruz. The millions of dollars given to athletes by their fans does not make them indentured, but should it make them grateful? Perhaps the NFL must first address its stars image problem. Before players will accept regular mental health screening, they must first accept their role in society. Before the players are willing to lay down firearms, the league is going to have to stop treating the players like cattle. Just like the greater problem of passing substantial legislation through Congress on gun control, the NFL has a complicated set of problems to address. It’s time for football to lead the way.