Their accomplishments are staggering. Fifteen Super Bowl championships, 55 Pro Bowl appearances, 31 All-Pro selections, 21 first-round picks, another 11 Super Bowl appearances, three MVPs and two Defensive Player of the Year winners. On paper, these achievements would suggest that this group is one of the finest collections of NFL players ever assembled. Instead, the accomplishments make up a different kind of team – players arrested on drunk-driving-related charges from 2007 through last season.
During that time, more than 90 players have been arrested on such charges – about 15 incidents a year. And the problem appears to be getting worse. From Jan. 1, 2012, through the last Super Bowl, 20 of the 51 reported arrests involving NFL players and personnel were related to drunk driving, nearly 40 percent of the arrests. The rate since 2000 has been a much lower 28 percent, according to a December USA Today report. The data has been collected from police reports, media reports and database research projects produced by the San Diego Union-Tribune and ProFootballTalk.
To its credit, the NFL, which has implemented prevention programs for its players, has made an effort to help change a player culture that prides itself, for better and for worse, on privacy. On Wednesday, the league announced a partnership with Uber, a smartphone app that can be used to track down a car service. The program begins next week in 17 of the NFL’s 31 cities. The Uber partnership is the latest attempt to fix the league’s very-public drunk-driving issue among its players.
“Some people use the programs and some guys are just taking a chance. They’re going to drink and drive, regardless,” said Delanie Walker, a tight end for the Tennessee Titans and a leading player advocate for drunk-driving awareness. “We talk about it in the locker room, but you can’t force someone to do something that they don’t want to do. That’s the hard part, as it’s happening all over the league with guys getting caught with multiple DUIs.”
How did we get here? Journeyman NFL linebacker Steve Foley may not register in every fan’s memory, but his football legacy – and what it has meant for the league’s initiative to prevent drunk-driving incidents– has become much more complicated in the seven years since he was forced to retire.
On Sept. 3, 2006, Aaron Mansker, then a 23-year-old cop in San Diego, began to follow Foley’s car, suspecting the driver was driving drunk. The driver, Foley, was coming off his finest season with the San Diego Chargers. Police records and court testimony later revealed that Foley’s blood alcohol level was as high as .233, almost three times the .08 legal limit in California.
When the off-duty copy tried to identify himself to Foley, the linebacker initially thought it was an overzealous fan trying to follow him and kept driving, according to the Office of the District Attorney of San Diego County. Almost 30 minutes into Mansker’s off-duty detour, Foley pulled onto the street where his home was located, and finally confronted Mansker. Still not believing Mansker was a cop or that the Smith & Wesson .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun he was holding wasn’t a BB gun, Foley continued to approach. Then, the BlackBerry attached to Foley’s waistband began to buzz. When Foley tried to answer his phone, Mansker, believing that he was reaching for a firearm, shot him four times. (Ironically, police records would later show that the call to Foley’s BlackBerry came from a car service.)
The following day, the Chargers placed Foley on injured reserve, ending his season before it even began. Because the shooting wasn’t a football-related injury, Foley was forced to forfeit his $775,000 salary for the 2006-07 season. In October 2006, Foley was formally charged with two counts of misdemeanor DUI, eventually pleading guilty. And almost six months after the shooting and arrest, the Chargers terminated Foley’s contract, effectively ending his career. (In 2008, Foley settled his civil lawsuit against Mansker and the city of Coronado, Calif., for $5.5 million.)
The Foley incident presented a perfect storm of sorts for a timely push to help curtail DUIs NFL players. For Gary Lawrence, a San Diego police officer, the shooting offered a chance to launch an effective DUI-prevention service that would cater to NFL players. The concept was simple: A car service that has off-duty and retired police officers driving drunk players home in their own cars.
Still raw from the Foley incident, Chargers’ executives Arthur Hightower and Dick Lewis, along with player Lorenzo Neal, became vocal advocates for the program. Within six weeks of Foley’s arrest, the Chargers had implemented the Safe Rides Solutions program for their players and staff.
Safe Rides Solutions was seen as a significant step for the NFL Players Association. After players provided a credit card and a proof of insurance, the players would call the main line and provide their membership number and first names. After setting up something with a driver in that particular city, the average pickup time was between 30 and 40 minutes. Under Safe Rides Solutions, teams would pick up anywhere from half of the tab to picking up the entire bill for the players, with the individual charges remaining anonymous.
“The reality is if a player is out and with one of our drivers, we never reported anything back that was said in the car or happened in the car,” Lawrence said. “The NFL never asked, no one asked. Everyone’s concern was that they got home safe. No one asked us to divulge any information of what they were doing.”
As the first team to put Safe Rides Solutions into action, the Chargers were awarded the NFL’s Winston-Shell Award in 2007, given to teams that develop unique and innovative solutions. After the first year, eight more teams signed on, giving Safe Rides Solutions more than a quarter of the league. Soon, the phrase “Safe Rides” became a common thing in some NFL circles.
But the program met pushback from players and league officials. Tim Christine, director of security for the NFLPA, described players’ feedback as “less than satisfactory,” specifically when it came to issues of privacy, the consistency of the pickup times and the program only being available in some cities.
“To be very frank with you, many of our members felt that since team management had partial responsibility of the other program, they were looking for a new direction,” Christine said. “That’s what led management and the board of player representatives to devise a program that upheld the highest levels of confidentiality.”
In 2009, the NFL Players Association came to an agreement with the league to essentially take over the Safe Rides initiative and develop a program that would be overseen by the union. After collecting data from a yearlong pilot program, the union initiated the Player Transportation Link in 2010, a modified version of Safe Rides. Under the new program, players who use the service enter into confidentiality agreements with Corporate Security Solutions, a Florida-based investigative service firm.
The program, which has current and former players covering the rate of $85 an hour, includes a number of improvements: players can prearrange rides, book rides with as little as 30 minutes notice and enact an emergency response service, which keeps constant communication with the player until the service arrives and takes the player to a safe location.
The monthly usage of the program, however, remains relatively low for a league with almost 1,700 players for 32 teams. In June 2012, Christine told NFL.com that the Player Transportation Link receives about 65 calls a month. This week, The New York Times estimated that the program received an average of 50 calls a month during the past three years. Due to privacy concerns, PTL, like Safe Rides, gives no details or specifics to the NFLPA other than the total number of calls.
But one incident, in particular, led to a spike in PTL usage. John Glavin, CEO of Corporate Security Solutions, said that the December 2012 intoxication manslaughter case involving then-Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent resulted in five-fold increase in calls to PTL.
“It’s a good thing [that calls are increasing], but a bad way that it had to happen,” said Glavin, whose company runs similar programs for the NBA and NHL.
Changing a Culture
In June 2012, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a memo to all teams, reiterating the consequences of players drinking and driving.
“If you choose to go out for drinks, make arrangements for a designated driver or ‘safe ride’ service,” Goodell wrote. “Remember that law enforcement is aggressively protecting the public from the dangers of impaired driving. DON’T TAKE CHANCES.”
But when it comes to punishing players for drinking and driving, Goodell’s warning has brought about a mixed bag of results, with only a fourth of players or personnel arrested on DUI-related charges last year having been suspended. The NFL’s DUI-related suspensions only happened after multiple incidents. Such suspensions from DUI-related arrests last season came from the players’ respective teams, not the league or the union.
Yet, the players who didn’t face suspensions – and the circumstances surrounding some arrests – have led to questions of how serious the league and union are about punishing players who drink and drive. In February 2012, Denver running back Knowshown Moreno was arrested on DUI charges while driving a Bentley with a license plate that read “SAUCED.” Less than a week after a DUI arrest, last season, running back Michael Turner, then with Atlanta, ran for 80 yards and a touchdown.
In the offseason, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told me that first-time DUI offenders involved in cases that aren’t classified as “aggravated” face a suspension of half a game and two game checks, the total not exceeding $50,000. The league is hoping to increase the punishment for first-time offenders to two games.
It remains unclear whether the league and union will beef up penalties and increase awareness.
“We will continue to emphasize education and awareness of the dangers of driving after drinking, and the resources available to NFL employees for safe rides home,” Aiello says. “We will also continue to press the union to increase and strengthen the discipline in our Substance Abuse Policy for alcohol-related violations of law.”
Just three teams – Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and the New York Jets – have allowed MADD to give victim-impact presentations to increase drunk-driving education among players and staff. MADD CEO Debbie Weir said the increase in player arrests for drunk driving might present an opportunity to broaden its partnership with the league – now in its fourth year – and players’ association.
“You have to have the conversation about drunk-driving prevention over and over again before it begins to sink in,” Weir said. She added: “From some of the clubs I have talked to, they want greater utilization of their safe rides programs. I definitely think everyone would like to see the utilization grow so that there are no other instances coming up.”
The morning after Super Bowl XLVII, Walker, then with San Francisco, landed back in the Bay Area only to find out that a drunk driver had killed his aunt and uncle, who had attended the game in New Orleans. In the months since, Walker has become one of the strongest player advocates for increased drunk-driving awareness. After signing with Tennessee in the offseason, Walker wrote a letter to state lawmakers in support of harsher penalties for people convicted of drunk driving. He’s currently working with the league and MADD to figure out how to improve and increase the usage of driving services and educational materials offered to players.
But the challenges are significant. Walker said that players remain skeptical of using the driving services provided by their respective clubs or the union due to cost and confidentiality, something that players don’t believe is truly there when it comes to these programs.
“There are so many programs put forth by the league to stop drunk driving from happening, but you have guys who don’t care,” Walker said. “Every year, the DUI arrests go up in the league. I don’t know what [the league and players association] can do. Somehow, some way, they’re going to have to figure it out.”