Penn State discipline becomes NFL's warning shot

Posted July 23, 2012 @ 2:11 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

The NFL must keep its eyes open. As wide as they can go.

As the sporting nation watches the fallout of the Penn State blight, it serves notice that the public still demands high moral fabric from its leaders. Celebrities. Athletes. Politicians. Certainly leaders in higher education. And rightfully so.

No one is outraged at the historic penalties levied by the NCAA on the university’s football program, and until there’s evidence that many innocent people were caught up in the undertow, no one should be.

We’re left to pick up the pieces of this American jigsaw tragedy — the many fragmented and complicated segments — and put them back together, trying to figure out where it goes from here. When does the healing start? When does it end? How will it work?

The only real victims in this case were the children affected by the monster named Jerry Sandusky and the school officials who either enabled him or refused to take him down. But in light of the waste-laying of the football program, and a scandal that frankly could tarnish college football indelibly, there are others whose lives have been changed dramatically as a result of the collateral damage.

As much of Penn State (including many who had nothing to do with the scandal) figures out a way to navigate this intractable future, we consider them here and now only because, well, this is a space to talk about football, and frankly, how it relates to its pro brethren, as insensitive as that might come off at this delicate hour.

Is there a direct connection between Penn State and the NFL, other than as a feeder talent pool? I believe there is. I believe the NFL now, more than ever, must recognize the corruptive power of fame, money and influence. And it must never allow its constituents to head down this horrible path.

There is nothing really tantamount to the death penalty in the NFL, or as people appropriately are calling the Penn State punishment, life without parole. Nor are the NCAA and NFL sister organizations; they are far different species in many ways. But there could be a similar fate for pro football with a scandal like this: widespread disaffection.

If the NFL ever slid to the moral low ground — collectively or in a single case — akin to what is happening in State College, Pa., it could lead to the NFL’s sudden freefall from grace. The league already is feeling a few rocks crumbling below given the off-field news of the past few years.

I did a radio hit on Saturday with old friend Gary Stein in Baltimore, and he asked me a salient and tricky question, before the Penn State punishments were handed down: He wanted to know what I thought could knock the NFL from its incredibly high perch of popularity.

Considering the health and safety issues that have become so prevalent in the league, I gave something of a shortsighted answer, saying that the on-field death of a player — whether or not it was the result of a legal collision — could shake the league to its core. I didn't give the wrong answer, but it ignored the slow burn that has smoldered around the league over the past few years.

Players have stepped out of line many times in recent years. Coaches and team officials, too. It feels like a weekly, sometimes daily occurrence during slower news cycles. You could argue that three of the biggest scandals in NFL history have happened in the past five or six years.

Spygate, Michael Vick and the Saints' bounty story have transcended sports. They were stories that struck a nerve with the non-sports-watching mainstream. They made A1 of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and they headlined TV news programs that seldom devoted time to sports stories.

And, as reports of more players being arrested this offseason on DWI and assault charges on the verge of training camps opening, it’s worth being reminded that image is everything.

I don’t have the statistics to show that more than 30 players out of nearly 3,000 on NFL rosters getting in trouble is a far greater percentage than in society at large. I just know what I feel and what it looks like. It’s bad. It stinks. In this era of wall-to-wall NFL exposure, that stench can carry a long way.

Is a player getting arrested for drinking and driving worse than the repeated acts of a serial sexual predator and the fact that he was allowed to get away with it for many years? I can’t say it is, not in a single case. But I can tell you that the potential for danger is almost certainly as great if the NFL continues to find its members getting in trouble.

We have to keep in mind what Penn State is actually being punished for — not for the grizzly acts of one man exactly, but for the wanton disregard and subsequent cover up by an institution. That’s important to note.

In this regard, the NFL has been proactive in trying to prevent anything like this from ever happening. It has come down hard on rule breakers with the personal-conduct code as a strong moral backbone, and commissioner Roger Goodell has struck with an iron fist against those teams that he believed sought to deceive him, the league and its investigators. The Patriots and Saints can attest to this.

But even with that and with measures such as the Rookie Symposium serving as strong educational tools of what stepping out of line can do to a young man’s promising career, the NFL is not infallible.

The fact that former Rams DE Leonard Little and his two alcohol-related arrests and convictions, one that resulted in the death of Susan Gutweiler in 1998, is relatively forgotten these days shows that people’s memories can be short even in cases as terrible as these. But should the NFL slip down even further with regard to poor discipline with more of these types of cases — more arrests, more convictions, more cases of disregard of the law — the sport of football most certainly could be vulnerable.

People, including the devoted fans the NFL counts as its lifeblood, only can put up with so much. They see the salaries of the players, the appearance of imperviousness and the daily connections to the police blotter, and they become outraged. They wonder why players such as Little seem to be treated one way while the rest of society has another, far more stringent set of rules.

The NFL must look at Penn State as an incredibly valuable lesson. Goodell has gone to great lengths to curb his league’s behavior, making it one of his mandates. That’s good to know. It’s assuring in a way. But it also must remain this way, and everyone else must hold up their end of the bargain.

Goodell will not be there to pull the keys out of players’ or coaches’ hands before they get behind the wheel. Teams like the Lions were being scorned for the slew of arrests among their players this offseason, seven in total, and they rightfully made a strong statement after CB Aaron Berry was involved in his second arrest in 26 days. They cut him swiftly once they gathered the facts and probably damaged his career permanently as a result. Too bad, buddy.

“We have repeatedly stressed to everyone in our organization that there will be appropriate consequences when an expected standard of behavior is not upheld,” Lions president Tom Lewand said in a statement.

Let’s hope players, coaches, team officials and the NFL start to realize the consequences of poor actions. It’s bigger than any one man. It could take down the sport they hold so dearly, and if their actions or negligence even come close to causing the damage that Sandusky and several Penn State officials did, the punishment certainly might fit the crime.