A call for mandatory, immediate DUI suspensions

Have we lost all perspective?

In the aftermath of the Jets’ victory over the Dolphins last night – a victory they very well might not have achieved without the services of confirmed drunk driver Braylon Edwards – I have been both shocked and appalled at the way Edwards is being glorified. One example is this article by Gregg Doyel, whose myopic take here really disappointed me, but who also reminded me that Edwards is not the only player to recently get picked up for a DUI.

And let me state something right off the bat: this post has nothing to do with my personal, well-known disdain for Braylon Edwards, as you’ll soon see.

Perhaps my distaste for how this story is being covered has been more acute because I can’t stand Edwards, but the general idea of this post is not influenced by Braylon and his underachieving, megalomaniacal “New York essence” one bit. And I mean that. I wouldn’t address a topic of such gravitas if my underlying motivation were so petty.

Here’s the thing: Edwards isn’t the only player who should not have played last night. I don’t think Edwards nor Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown – another confirmed drunk driver, but whose transgression occurred during the offseason – should have been on the field last night; and Brown is one of my favorite NFL players, a guy whose jersey I own and proudly wear sometimes on gamedays.

Both Brown, a guy I like, and Edwards, a guy I loathe, should have been suspended for at least four games for their transgressions. That’s right. If Brian Cushing and others can be suspended for failing a test for performance-enhancing drugs, a crime against only the integrity of NFL competition, then Edwards and Brown should be suspended for just as long, if not moreso, for a crime again the integrity of human life.

braylon-edwards-ronnie-brown-mugshotThe only thing separating Brown and Edwards from an infamous and indefinite existence of regret and remorse, the kind of existence that is an unfortunate but deserved reality for Donte Stallworth and Leonard Little, is luck. That’s it.

Brown, Edwards, Stallworth, and Little all made the same selfish choice to turn their automobiles into runaway weapons that they were not in complete capacity to control;. The only difference is that the weapons of Stallworth and Little took the lives of other human beings, while Brown and Edwards were merely forced to suffer the ignominy of being arrested. (And you know what? It’s quite possible that being arrested may just have prevented Brown and Edwards from a fate similar to Stallworth and Little. Who knows what happens if they keep driving drunk. I shudder to think.)

Yet, Brown essentially paid no price and Edwards is somehow being celebrated for his ability block out the distractions and play well in a football game.

Once again, I ask you: have we lost all perspective?

Let me make something else clear before I go on, in the interest of full disclosure: this post is not about me standing on a soapbox and blathering on all holier-than-thou about how selfish and stupid NFL players can be. Quite the contrary.

The truth is that I, and many friends of mine, especially while in college, made similarly poor decisions after nights of drinking. I admit that while I’ve been responsible 99% of the time, and spent many a weekend night as a DD in college, on a couple of occasions I drove when I probably should not have. Sadly, I would assume that most of the people reading this, if given truth serum, would say the same thing. So really, the only thing that separates you and me from Little and Stallworth is luck too.

Anyone who has ever gotten behind the wheel of a car without all of the mental and physical faculties necessary to operate a vehicle with complete awareness is no better than any of these football players. These players just provide a convenient jumping off point for the conversation.

Now let’s get back to perspective.

The NFL suspends players for drug use of all kinds, which I think is fine, especially in the case of performance enhancers. So why not suspend anyone who is pulled over and blows a BAL above the legal limit? No one else is ever going to die from Brian Cushing’s decision to *ahem* overtrain, but it only takes one time and a little bad luck for someone else to make the same decision Braylon Edwards and I made for it to result in a tragedy.

That is why I think DUIs should be dealt with on a zero-tolerance level.

Right now, players cannot be suspended for a first DUI offense. They can be issued up to a $50,000 fine. The reason is that a first offense falls under the substance abuse policy, not the personal conduct policy. Upon a second offense, the NFL can step in and dole out punishment. This is ludicrous. It would be like issuing a five-yard penalty for the first time a defensive back commits pass interference and then getting serious and making it a spot-of-the-foul penalty afterwards.

Actually, no, it’s nothing like that. Well, in a way I suppose it is…but pass interference can’t kill someone.

Donte Stallworth and Leonard Little paid huge prices, both monetarily and in terms of suspension length, for killing people while driving drunk. Ronnie Brown and Braylon Edwards paid very little price, but only luck and happenstance really separates these four people. So why such disparate punishments for essentially the same choice?

It’s the choice to drive drunk that was the real crime in all four cases. Driving drunk is illegal. It’s not just illegal if you kill someone. As soon as you make the choice to drive while inebriated, you are essentially putting your future and the future of every other person on the road with you at that same time at risk.

This is where I get to my call to action.

The NFL has already had two high profile stories of players killing people while driving drunk, and DUIs are a recurring problem for the NFL; this, despite the presence of a service that players can call anytime to drive them home. If the NFL is going to lay down the gauntlet of justice to stop the use of recreational and performance-enhancing drugs – which, again, harm no one but the player himself and the integrity of the competition – why would it not be just as vigilant and decisive in deterring its players from operating vehicles while intoxicated?

And it’s not just the NFL. Major League Baseball has had high profile instances of players and even managers caught behind the wheel when they shouldn’t be. Yet, while we regularly see players suspended 50 games for failing PED tests, where was the long suspension for Tony La Russa after he was found passed out drunk in his car at a stoplight? If you ask me, La Russa’s crime was far more egregious and deserving of a long suspension. But I guess it all depends on your perspective.

Right now, professional sports leagues like the NFL and MLB, and the unions that they must deal with when it comes to formulating systems of punishment, have made it clear that they value the integrity of their competition and the right to make millions more than they value the integrity of human life. How else are we to interpret punishment policies that treat performance-enhancing drug use with such strict, black & white seriousness but that seem to revel in the incomprehensible gray area reserved for DUIs.

If you believe the previous statement to be hyperbole or misguided, by all means disagree in the comment section. I want this post to generate debate and discussion.

We talk all the time about deterring performance-enhancing drug use to a) maintain the integrity of the competition and b) ensure that the right example is being set for kids. Well here is the lesson that kids have learned so far from the NFL this season:

  • Fail a test for performance-enhancing drugs, even if the circumstances surrounding the test are in dispute, and you’re out for four games. Period. End of discussion.
  • Get pulled over for a DUI and while your reputation takes a bit of a hit, the organization and its cheering sycophants will have your back and all you need to do is play well on the field to be redeemed. (Unless you’re unlucky and kill someone, of course…then it’s a problem.)

Frankly, and please excuse my language, that’s bullshit.

While this post is singling out the NFL, the point is universal. If I ever am so selfish and stupid to drive again when I shouldn’t be, and I sure hope I’m more mature than that now, then I should be suspended from my job. Period. End of story. And so should you. And so should anyone else who drives drunk. If you don’t like the idea of suspending people from their jobs – a perspective I can understand – then for us laypeople there should be minimum fines and other penalties that are more substantial than what is in place now.

But in sports, where PED use is dealt with by suspension, that’s the minimum that a DUI should generate.

Maybe I needed to watch a guy I can’t stand be celebrated in the wake of getting caught for a DUI to realize the absurdity of this issue. And maybe I needed to realize how much of a hypocrite I was being for casting stones at Braylon Edwards, while granting immunity to myself and Ronnie Brown, to take an honest look at this issue and figure out how I really and objectively feel it should be handled.

Well here it is: you are a criminal the second you get behind the wheel of a car while drunk and you should be dealt with as one. If you don’t agree with me, ask the families forever haunted by Donte Stallworth’s and Leonard Little’s decision to do just that. I bet they’ll agree. Just because Braylon Edwards, Ronnie Brown, I, and perhaps you, didn’t cause a similar tragedy does not mean we are any better, it just means we were luckier.

It’s time to take luck out of the equation for punishment when it comes to DUI. Even if it would only help to deter one more drunk driver from getting behind the wheel of a car they shouldn’t be driving, it would be worth it. And the NFL has the clout, visibility, and tragic historical perspective to set this terrific example. In fact, considering their history, I think they should be compelled to do so.

There is no negative to any policy that deters drunk drivers from driving, just as there is no negative to any policy that deters PED cheaters from cheating. So I ask again: why is one dealt so much differently from the other?

Ultimately, it just comes down to perspective. What’s yours?

Update: I want to clarify something, based on some of the feedback/comments I’ve gotten about this on Twitter and Reddit. I am not advocating the NFL override the principle of innocent until proven guilty or prevent players from receiving due process. The legal system needs to run its course and a player’s guilt needs to either be admitted or proven before a suspension should happen. But once this happens, the suspension should be immediate.

Update: I just came across two excellent links that are related to what I’ve written here.

The first is from Stephanie Stradley, who blogs for both FanHouse and the Houston Chronicle, and who has a background in law. I’ve met Stephanie and spoken with her on multiple occasions. She is bright, thoughtful, and measured when it comes to issues where sports and the legal system interact. Read her piece entitled All Hail Goodell…Or Else: A Look at the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.

The other link is actually contained within Stephanie’s post. It is from a Pro Football Talk article from June of 2009 that reiterates the main idea I’m making here: Schmitt Should Be Suspended For a Year.

About the Author

Jerod Morris

I love words. I write for Copyblogger and founded MSF, The Assembly Call, & Primility. I practice yoga, eat well, & strive for balance. I love life. Namaste. Say hi on Twitter, Facebook, & G+.