Darnell Dockett, the menacing defensive lineman for the Arizona Cardinals, found his murdered mother in a pool of her own blood in their kitchen when he was 13. She had been shot in the head. A few months later, Dockett’s father died of cancer. His sister couldn’t afford him. His grandparents didn’t want him. So an uncle took him in. Dockett says he wandered from fight to fight through his formative years until he stopped fearing pain altogether.
Dockett didn’t find football as much as football found him, and it was something of a salvation. Dockett plays the game in a hissing rage, saying it is a needed outlet to release all his anger with legalized violence that would get him in trouble if expressed just about anywhere outside of Sundays. Yes, he enjoys being paid for beating up other men; but mostly he just enjoys beating up other men. He doesn’t believe he would be as good without this anger and violent streak, and he doesn’t believe that someone who lacks these things has a chance of stopping him. The crime involving his mother, it should be noted, has never been solved.
That Dockett has been an upstanding member of the NFL despite his past and his path is a tremendous tribute to him. But that’s not always how it goes, as we’ve seen more often in football than we do in other sports. And as former New England tight end Aaron Hernandez is charged with murder … and as NFL arrests go up in spite of the most punitive commissioner in the history of American sports … and as Ohio State coach Urban Meyer again finds himself more helpless than his proclaimed “furious” about his players getting in trouble yet again … is it fair to wonder how football itself contributes to its own perceived behavior problem?
It seems like the violent game’s culture and pipeline — combined with a trafficking on broken, desperate backgrounds for the mining of talent — conspire to make this an unsolvable issue for commissioner Roger Goodell, no matter how loudly he tries and no matter how much he’d like to pretend he can exert control over this. The gladiators who choose this particular career path are often shaped by broken backgrounds that help them arrive at football … with some sharpened and rewarded character traits that might not serve them as much away from the game. It is not a coincidence that the majority of football arrests occur during the offseason, when players have too much free energy and free time away from the more disciplined violence Dockett prefers.
This is not to suggest all angry, violent men would be good football players; it is to suggest you’ll find a lot of angry, violent ones in some of your best huddles. And football does a hell of a job of not only finding men who live on the edge of acceptable behavior but also feeding and needing them.
Before heading too far down this path, some things need to be noted in the name of fairness. Many, many more football players behave than don’t. In fact, football players get arrested about one-third as often as men ages 22 to 34 everywhere else in America, so we’re concentrating here on the statistical outliers at least in part because Goodell himself has taken such a public stance in trying to eradicate the statistical outliers without success.
Is there an answer?
Murder, specifically, is a deviant crime, and there is nothing to suggest the Patriots could have seen it coming in Hernandez’s case, despite his alleged gang ties. This isn’t about trying to bring sense to the senseless by turning one meathead’s alleged crimes into a symbol or trend for the whole. It is merely trying to understand how powerful leaders such as Goodell and Meyer can’t seem to control the misbehavior despite repeated efforts, making this look like an ingrained stain on this sport that won’t ever come out, no matter how much the powerful try to scrub it away.
Arrests are up 61 percent since Goodell took office, according to Thebiglead.com. How does one explain that? The most vigilant commissioner ever — a man who has thrown around unprecedented consequences and deterrents — failing big with his loudest crusade? The answer to all of this is … there is no answer to all of this.
And the very culture of football is one of many issues here. Football is populated by bad, bad men. And that is usually viewed as good — physical, intimidating, powerful. You have to be different and kind of crazy to choose this as a lifestyle, feeding your family by being more of a man than the next guy. The ego and attitude that breeds is helpful in this line of work, but dangerous in most other social settings, especially in the hands of the reckless — and reckless is what you have to be to choose this career path, given what we’re now reading about head injuries and given that just Saturday, the Cleveland Browns’ Ryan Miller left the field by ambulance with a concussion. This kind of work, it hurts, which can lead to the kind of self-medicating, drinking and drugging that produces bad decisions that also get you handcuffed.
You say boxing and hockey and MMA are violent and also hurt, but without this many of these kinds of problems? That’s true. But there are many more football players to get in trouble, given the size of the pro and college rosters, which skews public perception. Skewing it more is the extra scrutiny invited when Goodell is so loud about cleaning up his league without actually doing so, every arrest a noisier failure than it is in the other sports. A hockey player can be arrested without it being an indictment of the entire league’s conduct code. Goodell points to the statistic that his employees get arrested one-third less than men that age in society, but that is at least a little misleading. Poverty and desperation are at the roots of most crime for men that age. What’s the NFL player’s excuse? The NFL player not only has fewer reasons to commit crimes but more to lose for doing so.
And then there’s the entire free minor-league system for the NFL, contaminated and corrupt, all manner of soul-selling going on in the name of getting good football players, shamateurism supporting itself by filing it under “free education” when it is really just “free football.” Many of the players are in school merely to play football, and many of them wouldn’t be allowed in school if not for football, so the coach who takes too many moral stands on character or academic issues is the one who loses his recruits and his job to the one who doesn’t.
Facts are facts
Think this is hyperbole? Consider this: The last time Colorado was championship good at football, Sports Illustrated reported that one-third of the roster had been arrested. Ohio State went more than four decades without a national championship … until Maurice Clarett. Nebraska went without a national championship for almost a quarter of a century … until Lawrence Phillips. You can find links between arrests and compromised standards and winning all over college football, from those notorious University of Miami champions to the University of Florida ones who had 31 arrests in the brief time Meyer was there.
You can point to outliers, but it is much harder to find big winners without criminal complications than with them. Heck, in 122 years of football, Vanderbilt has been to only four bowl games but two of them have been the past two seasons … as their coach now uses a helicopter to find recruits in the Southeastern Conference … and last month had to kick four players off the team for alleged sex crimes.
Goodell will continue to be punitive, and Meyer will continue to be furious, and that violence will continue to spill right over those sidelines on occasion and into real life.
The rest of us can keep requesting that the gladiators please, please be more civil.
But how surprised can we be anymore when they aren’t?