For the second straight weekend, tragedy rocked the regularly scheduled world of the NFL. It left families, friends, teammates and coaching staffs grieving over yet another senseless loss of life. It also left the league facing questions not only about efforts to safeguard players on the field but whether it’s doing enough to help them stay out of harm’s way once they step outside the white lines.
In the early-morning hours Saturday in Irving, Texas, 24-year-old Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent got behind the wheel of his Mercedes alongside teammate Jerry Brown and sped off, the prelude to a one-car accident that would leave Brown dead at 25 and Brent sitting in jail facing a felony charge of intoxicated manslaughter.
All this happened little more than three years after Brent was sentenced to probation and 60 days in jail in a plea agreement following his drunken driving arrest while playing football at the University of Illinois, where he and Brown were teammates as well.
That it happened just a week after Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend to death, then drove to the Chiefs’ training facility and took his own life with the same gun, raised questions about the league’s responsibility to the young men it empowers and enriches — in some cases, almost overnight.
“I don’t know that anybody has the answer, to be honest. They’re human beings, kids in most of the cases like this, and they’re going to make mistakes,” said Dan Reeves, who played seven years for the Cowboys before launching an NFL coaching career that included four stops over four decades.
“As a coach, you’ve got more than 50 players, if you count practice squad guys, that you’re trying to keep an eye on. And both the league and the team invest an awful lot of time and money trying to educate them about the opportunities and pitfalls that are set out in front of them. ...
“But no matter what you do, some are going to believe the bad stuff will never happen to them. And teams spend so much time together, they become like families. It’s easy to get lulled into thinking you know which ones need a pat on the back and which ones a kick in the behind. Yet this shows we don’t always learn the real strengths and weaknesses of some until it’s too late. Everybody deals with that knowledge in their own way.
“But if you’re going to play,” Reeves said finally. “I don’t know any other way to honor that person than to play as hard as you can.”
The emotional scene that roiled Kansas City in the wake of Belcher’s murder-suicide a week earlier shifted to Cincinnati, where the Cowboys arrived Saturday night to complete preparations before Sunday’s kickoff against the Bengals.
The team cut short its regular two-hour meeting and made sure counselors were on hand to speak to players afterward. But when owner Jerry Jones spoke with a Fox interviewer outside the locker room shortly before the game, his eyes were rimmed red and he spoke haltingly about Brown.
“Our team loved him. They certainly are conscious of him and want his family to know and have as much of them as they can give. At the same time,” he added, “they know that one of the best things they can do for him and his memory is to come to the game today, is go out and play well.”
How the NFL responds to this latest tragedy remains to be seen. Earlier this summer, cognizant of both the rising number of domestic violence and DUI incidents involving players, Commissioner Roger Goodell pledged to address both problems.
“We are going to do some things to combat this problem because some of the numbers on DUIs and domestic violence are going up and that disturbs me,” he told CBS Sports. “When there’s a pattern of mistakes, something has got to change.”
In several important ways, player conduct has already improved significantly since Goodell took over from Paul Tagliabue.
In 2006, Goodell’s first season, 68 players were arrested for crimes more severe than a traffic violation. Since then, arrests for crimes including domestic violence, drunken driving and gun possession are down 40 percent.
Yet, as Goodell noted, the number of incidents in the last year have climbed at an alarming rate — according to one study, 21 of the league’s 32 teams had at least one player charged with domestic violence or sexual assault — and the tragedies involving players on successive weekends has already prompted accusations that the league isn’t doing nearly enough.
On Saturday in Kansas City, a dozen members of the Chiefs’ organization attended a memorial service for Kasandra Perkins. Among them was general manager Scott Pioli, whom Belcher spoke with in the parking lot of the Chiefs facility to thank before turning the gun on himself. A day later, just as the Chiefs did against the Panthers last Sunday, the Cowboys rallied to win their game against the Bengals.
The team has already canceled its annual Christmas party, scheduled for Monday at Cowboys Stadium, and instead began planning a memorial service for Brown.
“From here on, they’re in uncharted waters,” Reeves said. “No one can point the best way forward. I was lucky in that sense: We never had to deal with the nightmare of losing a friend and teammate. One thing I’m certain of, though — it’s going to haunt some of them for a long time to come.”