The NFL has a major problem on its hands. Nary a week goes by where we do not hear of some kind of serious criminal incident with one of the league’s players. The latest is example of this is San Francisco 49ers‘ Aldon Smith, who is on what seems like his umpteenth chance to straighten out.
Already facing two felony gun charges for a 2012 incident, Smith continues to publicly melt down. The latest incident was at LAX on Sunday, where he was said to have indicated that he possessed a bomb. This sort of behavior is inexplicable. It is not actually believed Smith had an incendiary device on his person, but to be so foolish as to make a statement like that to TSA suggests a profound disregard for societal rules or a lack of maturity bordering on mental illness.
Yet we can read that with regards to Smith, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has refrained from league discipline in the past because he wants to focus more on the behavior and not the punishment. That may be noble, but history shows that stern discipline guides behavior, and without it, people who tend to be screw-ups continue to screw up.
While we are supposed to enthralled by on-field violence, actual violence is now starting to affect the lives of people tangentially associated with, and in some cases completely unrelated to the league altogether. What is building these ticking time bombs? Why is Aaron Hernandez sitting in jail for murder and being looked at for more? Why did Chris Henry of the Cincinnati Bengals self-destruct and kill himself by falling off of a truck?
The answers can be learned, but the question is does anyone truly want to discover them? For Goodell, the answers may be costly, but the league must not take an all-or-nothing approach. In order for the game to thrive, measures must be taken to protect players and fans and its reputation. It is not acceptable to have players traipse through airports glibly referencing bombs. This is disrespectful, dangerous and panic-inducing.
Yet this kind of behavior, erratic and without regard for consequences, is very similar to what we see with those afflicted with CTE, the degenerative brain disease that is taking the lives of players past and present. Is this what is affecting Smith? We don’t know. But while we are in the process of learning more about CTE, it is not enough to respond to these fires as they arise.
Goodell must now realize that his league, though quite successful, is in a bit of long-term jeopardy if he can not rein in the traumatic brain injuries. It would be wise for him to employ a full-scale physical evaluation of every player before the season, and at the first sign of documented medical concerns, pull that player and have him seek help.
Additionally, he must consider investing in technology that can truly improve player well-being. Head shots must become a thing of the past, even the so-called incidental ones. This must become a torso-tackling oriented game. Anything else will not suffice in a league where the players continually get faster and stronger.
Chances are if you are reading this, you love the game of football as much as I do. But for this to change, the fans will have to impress upon the commissioner that love for the game also requires a concern for the players. Smith’s behavior is not an isolated matter. More and more players are becoming erratic and outright dangerous to themselves and others, and CTE keeps turning up in these post-mortems.
Goodell must now look at the intersection of Disaster Lane and Evolution Drive and choose the prudent path forward. Only when he truly chooses the right road can his players be saved from careening down the wrong one.