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Ottewill: The NFL needs to take responsibility

The headlines, statements and reactions are all so predictable.

Yesterday, it was reported that Denver Broncos director of player personnel Matt Russell had been arrested during the holiday weekend and was facing multiple charges, including driving under the influence, careless driving resulting in injury, having an open container of alcohol in his car and failure to display proof of insurance. What followed was the same story that always follows: The team is disappointed; the individual is regretful; the fans are outraged; the league reiterates its intolerance for such behavior.

And then the world moves on. Like clockwork.

Russell’s arrest will ultimately provide a spike in internet traffic, and (sadly) a much-welcomed diversion for sports talk show hosts in search of topics that might make the dog days of summer’s dead air more bearable. But that’s likely it.

The NFL, and the country that loves it, won’t change much. Russell won’t be the NFL’s last DUI arrest this year, and smart money says plenty of regular folks – 112 million individuals admitted to drinking too much then driving in 2010, according to M.A.D.D. – will risk the same thing soon enough. In 2011, 9,878 people died in drunk driving crashes.

Everyone knows the horrifying statistics, but practically everyone has made the same poor judgment that Russell did at least once or twice in their lifetime; I know I have. But there’s a bigger hypocrisy in all of this that should be noted.

The NFL is a message machine. It will use Russell, and hundreds of other former and future players who make the same mistake, to remind fans how wrong this is (that’s a good thing). The league will make sure to emphasize and re-emphasize that it does everything within its power to educate players on the dangers of drug and alcohol use. And it will remind everyone that there’s a program in place that provides players who have been drinking with free transportation – from anywhere, at any time, no questions asked with complete anonymity.

Those are fine initiatives. But reality suggests that the NFL is – at worst – a reflection of society. The players and executives who make headlines for getting DUIs do so in a percentage no different from you and me.

A recent study in the San Diego Tribune, one that chronicled the legal trouble of the league from 2000 to 2008, shows that NFL players are arrested at a rate of one per 47. The U.S. population (in general) posts a rate of one per 21 – more than twice as frequently. Of the 385 NFL players arrested (in that study), 112 of them were involved in drunk driving. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that in 1996, DUIs accounted for one out of every 10 arrests for all crimes in the U.S. All told, the typical professional football player is no more or less guilty than the rest of us.

Lost in all of this, however, is another area where the league truly could make a difference. Don’t be fooled, though, it’s an arena that nobody behind the NFL’s badge wants to truly discuss.

It’s easy to publicly shame the likes of Matt Russell. That’s obvious and expected. But on any given Sunday, the league could make an even bigger impact when it comes to the safety of its own fans and those who drive home next to them.

A recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota determined that one in 12 fans departing an NFL football game are legally drunk. The study didn’t specify the percentage of those driving home, but one can deduct it’s much higher than zero.

The study showed that “people under the age of 35 were eight times more likely to be legally drunk than other attendees and fans who ‘tailgate’ in the parking lot before the game were the worst offenders: They were 14 times more likely to leave a game intoxicated.” In an anonymous survey given by the researchers who administered a breathalyzer test, one in four tailgaters owned up to downing at least five alcoholic beverages, with those in the highest blood alcohol content range knocking back an average of 6.6 drinks.

Numbers across the internet vary (you can bet the league isn’t posting this one), but it’s fairly safe to estimate that on average, the typical NFL stadium sells just under one beer per fan in attendance. Assume that not every fan is drinking, and it’s also safe to say that the typical game-day drinker purchases more than one beer. Take it one step further and throw in the aforementioned tailgaters and it’s also fairly safe to assume that a high percentage of drinkers do so in excess – before, during and perhaps after the game.

Yet, the NFL says – or does – very little about this.

Why? Follow the money. While safety and the image of the league’s players are a major concern, curbing beer sales on game day is not. Image is good for business. As is selling gallons and gallons of beer. Policing the fun of a fan’s at-stadium experience is not.

How often have you been to a game (in any sport) and noticed that the fan next to you, or one row over, is completely bombed? Ever wondered how they’re continually being served? Ever wonder if they drove home?

In a related study conducted by the University of Minnesota, actors were instructed to behave as if they were drunk while ordering alcoholic beverages at NFL games; 74 percent of the time they were served.

How many drunk fans are hopping in the car and driving home? It’s the question nobody in the NFL really wants to ask.

It’s easy to lambast the actions of Russell, or even a repeat offender like D.J. Williams. That’s common sense. It’s a public scolding that serves as a general reminder that’s it’s never okay to get behind the wheel while intoxicated.

But it’s much tougher for the NFL to take a long hard look in the mirror, as the league doesn’t want to admit it plays a major role in a far bigger problem. As a simple matter of fact, the number of NFL players and executives who have been arrested on charges of drunk driving during the last decade pales in comparison to the number of drunk fans who leave a single stadium each and every Sunday.

It’s not the NFL’s job to police the drinking habits of its fans, but the league certainly could do a better job of controlling what those same fans do inside – or while exiting – its stadiums.

That’s not going to happen anytime soon, though. In 2012, the average beer inside an NFL stadium cost $7.28. Do the math. It’s much simpler, and much more profitable, to scold Matt Russell.


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