DUI is the biggest off-field problem for the NFL


almost a year ago Donte’ Stallworth(Remarks) was accused of killing a pedestrian while allegedly driving while intoxicated, the National Bureau of Mothers Against Drunk Driving received a call from the NFL. That may help explain why senior MADD officials withheld judgment on the Stallworth case Cleveland Browns Wide receiver who has not received a censure or sanction from the league or team since his March 14 accident.

Michael Wick(Remarks) and dog fighting. The Misadventures of Adam “Pacman” Jones. Plaxico Burres(Remarks) and a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Those are the criminal matters often cited in relation to the NFL, but drunk driving remains the league’s biggest off-field problem, and it’s unclear how Commissioner Roger Goodell intends to address the matter.

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Stallworth was seen leaving a Dade County detention center with his mother last month.

(Jeffrey M. Boan/AP Photo)

The problem is undeniable: A study released last month by the San Diego Union-Tribune, which has tracked arrests of NFL players since 2000, found that 28 percent of incidents — by far the highest percentage — were related to drunk driving. At least 73 players who were on the NFL rosters during the 2008 season were arrested for drunk driving, according to a search of reports published by Yahoo! Sports.

Now Stallworth’s case has brought the issue to the fore.

Stallworth was scheduled for a hearing on Thursday, but it was pushed back to June. As a result of the case, the NFL has come under closer scrutiny.

It started with a call to MADD in June 2008.

At that point, MADD chief development officer Cathey Wise said she spoke to Mike Haynes, then the NFL’s vice president of player development. Haynes, who was not available for comment, told Wise he was calling at Goodell’s behest and that the NFL commissioner was “fed up with DUIs,” according to Wise.

“He basically wanted to open up a dialogue,” Wise said in a recent interview. “Are we interested in working with the league? What did we think about substance abuse and substance abuse? What was our approach to drinking and driving?”

The first call led to a series of conversations. Then in March, two weeks before Stallworth’s accident, the NFL requested a proposal for a formal partnership with MADD.

“We’ve taken it as a genuine interest in what we can do to address the problem in the league,” Wise said. “It’s not the way it was, here’s a high-profile incident and the NFL was like, ‘Oh my God. What can we do to save face?’ “

But now the NFL is grappling with a high-profile incident, and MADD is waiting for the league to respond to the proposal submitted in March.

“We have had several discussions with the organization but there is nothing definitive to discuss,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in a recent email.

But MADD seems less concerned with what the NFL has to say than what it does. A decade ago, members of the organization took aim at the league and its handling of a drunk driving death involving one of its players.

November 15, 1999. Matchday. About 150 protesters organized by MADD gathered in front of the St.Louis Aries‘ Stadion.

Leonard Klein(Remarks), a defensive end for the Rams, had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 1998 after his blood alcohol content was found to be more than twice the legal limit when Little’s car collided with another, killing the driver. The protest coincided with Little’s return after serving an eight-game suspension from the NFL.

“Is eight enough? St. Louis it’s time to get MADD,” read one banner.

Fast forward seven years. Goodell replaces Paul Tagliabue as commissioner and announces it’s time to crack down on wayward players.

Goodell’s supporters will point out that according to the Union-Tribune report, he has stepped up the league’s personal conduct policy and has suspended Jones and 11 others since April 2007. He is now reluctant to rule on whether to reinstate Vick as the suspended quarterback is completing his sentence on house arrest.

But then came the March 14 accident in which a pedestrian died and Stallworth faced up to 15 years in prison.

So far, the league hasn’t taken any public action against Stallworth, although the Philadelphia Inquirer reported two years ago that he was in the NFLs Substance abuse program for unknown reasons.

MADD isn’t the only group watching how the NFL is handling the situation and drunk driving after Goodell privately acknowledged it’s an annoying problem.

“I think this is perhaps a case that escaped the NFL’s tightened rules and regulations,” said Dave Czesniuk, operations director of Northeastern University’s highly regarded Sport in Society program. “…I think the NFL is under a little pressure across the board when it comes to alcohol: overconsumption at games and who has access to it and how a sport has historically been associated with overconsumption.”

Cutting ties with the alcohol industry would be a costly move for the NFL. In 2005, Coors paid the league $500 million to remain the official beer of the NFL through 2010.

The deal caught the attention of critics. What has garnered less attention is a program to reduce DUIs among NFL players.

In 2006, an off-duty police officer in San Diego began tracking Steve Foley(Remarks), then a linebacker with that San Diego chargers. Suspecting Foley was driving while intoxicated, the officer ordered Foley to stop and shot Foley after the player allegedly ignored the officer.

Shaken by the incident, a San Diego police officer joined forces with the then-Chargers running back Lorenzo Neale(Remarks) and started a business that makes sure drunk NFL players get home safely. Safe Ride Solutions, a company supported by the NFL, uses current and former law enforcement officers to drive players home in players’ own vehicles.

The company’s success depends in large part on confidentiality, said Gary Lawrence, the police detective who came up with the idea.

“They don’t want the owners to see them in a negative light when they use the service,” Lawrence said. “You don’t want them to think they have a drinking problem if they don’t.”

The Chargers were the first NFL team to use Safe Ride Solutions. Though the NFL leaves the decision up to teams, a league spokesman said 75 percent of teams are now using such services.

“I think it would be a really good idea to do something like this league-wide,” said Richard Lapchick, who is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts on social issues in sport. “It would put an exclamation point on the issue of the league itself.”

Instead, the punctuation remains a question mark as the league continues to grapple with the issue.

About 18 players have been arrested for drunk driving in each of the last three seasons, according to a league source, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. Wise said she remembered Haynes, citing an average of 30 such arrests a year.

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Little has amassed 81 sacks in his career … and some bad publicity.

(Chris McGrath/Getty)

Based on both numbers, statistics show that the arrest rate for NFL players is lower than the national rate for males ages 21 to 35, a group responsible for a disproportionate number of DUI arrests.

However, Wise said her discussions with the league board, which initiated discussions with MADD, made it clear where Goodell stood on the issue.

“The commissioner was pretty good at that and really wanted to be more aggressive about it,” Wise said.

Under current NFL policy, a player convicted of drunk driving can be fined up to $50,000. Repeat offenders face a ban. Now, NFL lawbreakers appear to be facing an increased prospect of more serious consequences.

Earlier this month, for example, the Saints of New Orleans two players released less than 48 hours after their arrest for allegedly being drunk and having exposed themselves to two women in a parking lot. Teams are quicker to dump players after arrests, but mostly when those players are expendable backups.

Stallworth, on the other hand, earned a $4.5 million roster bonus the day before the accident.

While MADD awaits how the NFL handles Stallworth’s situation, it also awaits a response from the league to her proposal.

“Clearly, the NFL is a leader in our country and we look forward to building a mutually beneficial relationship,” Wise said. “…We’re cautiously optimistic.”

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