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.