Journalist’s need topics to be relevant and timely in order to effectively write about them. I have been taking a bit of an offseason myself, unable to post here, taking my chances that nothing too significant would occur during my hiatus, “The dark times”… also known as the NFL offseason.
Then former Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez happens.
The story, if you are not aware, is that Hernandez is accused of murdering 27-year-old Odin Lloyd. Details are still coming out, but one of the most recent Google searches shows that Hernandez reportedly admitted to not only being involved in the killing, but pulling the trigger of the gun. A more thorough Hernandez story can be found here courtesy of ABC News.
As I said, journalist’s need stories to be relevant to write about them, so when I returned, the story of Hernandez had for the most part been written. I needed something to make it timely again.
Then the Denver Broncos’ Director of Player Personnel, Matt Russell, was arrested for drunken driving after he crashed his car, while intoxicated, into a parked police car on July 6th. Then reports surfaced that on June 11th, the Broncos Director of Pro Personnel, and former Cleveland Browns General Manager, Tom Heckert, was arrested and charged with drunken driving as well.
The NFL is looking pretty bad about now. Combine that with nearly 30 other arrests, of varying degrees, and the arrest of Patriots CB Alfonzo Dennard on July 10th, which certainly didn’t help as it pushed the total NFL player arrests between 30 (since the Super Bowl) and 40 (since the beginning of 2013) depending on your source.
This begs the question… what does this mean for the NFL? Is there an image problem?
There are some who feel that this is a major issue that reflects where the NFL has gone wrong. They point to the sheer number of arrests, the occasionally major offenses that provoke the arrests (most are relatively minor, but there are accusations of domestic violence… etc.) and how these players who get into this trouble receive two, three, or more chances after these incidents because they are talented football players. Some people maybe do feel the incidents are more fluke than anything, but then wish the NFL would do more to punish players.
Then there are some like me who think all of these factors contribute to what I would call a perception issue as opposed to an image issue for the NFL.
To me, “NFL image problem” means there is something that is inherently wrong with the way the NFL is conducting itself or that the combination of Hernandez and the other arrests should make us question the way the NFL operates or its worth in society. In other words, I would say the NFL has an image problem if I believed the NFL was bursting at the seams with these negative stories. A “NFL perception problem” is something that we are told, we soak in, but it may not necessarily be accurate.
For example… Without looking it up, what NFL team is considered to be the most highly arrested team whose roster is littered with players who, at one point or another, had a run-in with law?
Odds are you thought of the Cincinnati Bengals or the Detroit Lions who have been the poster child for arrests in the past couple years. Right?
Since 2000, the Bengals have, in fact, led the NFL in player arrests with 40, but another team tied. The Minnesota Vikings. People don’t think of the Vikings in the same way people joke about the Bengals despite both bringing the same negative attention on the NFL. The Lions aren’t even in the top half of the league with 17 player arrests since 2000, but Detroit does have 10 player arrests in the last two years alone (Courtesy of UTSanDiego NFL Arrests Database).
Thus, the perception.
My point is that the media looks for stories that mean something to readers and something important to football fans is hearing about players who may be unable to play due to off-field troubles or about players who may end up on the readers’ favorite team. It’s all too easy to focus on the negative for the media and you can’t necessarily blame them for it as their information is being willingly consumed by us, the readers, but that negative coverage then creates a flawed perception of reality at times.
Are all the Bengals’ players bad guys who get arrested all the time? No. In fact, many of the players are big players in the community with charities as with most of the players in the league. Starting Bengals LT Andrew Whitworth paid the funeral expenses for a 16-year-old from Louisiana, who died during spring football drills this past May. Bears CB Charles Tillman and former Eagles CB (recently acquired by the 49ers) Nnamdi Asomugha are big contributors to the community with their charities, the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation and The Asomugha Foundation respectively. We don’t necessarily hear those stories on ESPN. Instead we hear about another NFL player being arrested because that is what drives the ratings.
In relation to the NFL’s current state, the NFL is facing a situation where the increase in arrests and media coverage surrounding them is creating a negative perception about the league when the reality is really much different. Just like anywhere there are bad apples who stand out in the media. Going back to the team examples, the Bengals have 40-player arrests since 2000, but the late Bengals’ WR, Chris Henry, was responsible for six of them. The Lions have their own troublemaker as former WR Titus Young was arrested three times during his brief stay with the team including the rather dubious distinction of being arrested twice in the same day. That means three of the 10 arrests in the last two years were from one player who is no longer on the team, yet Detroit continues to receive the “And here we go again in Detroit” when the media is covering another Lions’ arrest, which just fuels the perception of the team and the players on that team.
So the question then becomes “what can the NFL do about this growing perception?”
In terms of Hernandez, the NFL and the New England Patriots have responded as well as I think they could. The Patriots had a meeting with the higher ups in their organization before his arrest and they decided that an arrest was an immediate release from the team and they followed through. Then the NFL and the Patriots began a process to cleanse Hernandez from both. The NFL is treating him like he never existed and the Patriots recommended that fans participate in their jersey exchange where Hernandez jerseys were being traded in for a jersey of equal value. It’s hard to distance yourself more than the NFL and New England are and for good reason. This sort of response is necessary in a case like Hernandez’s and because the NFL is doing everything they can to disassociate, it demonstrates to me that they know this was a case of a bad apple and nothing greater despite the arrests this offseason. While I feel Hernandez and the other players should be viewed as if separate from the NFL (meaning the NFL has no image problem), I do think the NFL needs to deal with this issue because the perception among the public isn’t very positive.
Some people say perception will change when the penalties get harsher. I think there is truth to that, but even the most extreme punishments wouldn’t completely cure the problem and would instead create their own problems of how harsh is excessive. Others have suggested a sort of rewards system for the players and teams (everyone loves positive reinforcement right?) with some sort of pay scale or compensatory draft picks for consecutive years with no incident. This seems like a solid idea to me, but this isn’t something that can be quickly implemented. I’m not the only one who thinks the best way for the NFL to repair it’s perception among the public is by presenting the positive stories. Tell us about the players out there like Whitworth, Tillman and Asomugha. We want to know more about the players who are helping others. I don’t think anyone wants another media love-fest surrounding Patriots third-string QB Tim Tebow, but he is a guy the league used for a while to change the public’s perception of what being a NFL player meant.
Perception is fluid and it will eventually shift back. The increasing arrests are a fluke, and the Hernandez story is one you don’t hear often, so these things will pass. We can’t let a couple of people who are making mistakes, which is something people tend to do, cause us to overreact.