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NFL

Litke: Is NFL responsible for tragic deaths?

| Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, 9:18 p.m.
Cowboys players hang their heads during a moment of silence honoring teammate Jerry Brown who was killed in an automobile accident prior to a game against the Bengals, on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, in Cincinnati. (AP)

For the second straight weekend, tragedy rocked the regularly scheduled world of the NFL.

It left families, friends, teammates and coaching staffs grieving over yet another senseless loss of life.

It also left the league facing questions not only about efforts to safeguard players on the field but whether it's doing enough to help them stay out of harm's way once they step outside the white lines.

In the early-morning hours Saturday, 24-year-old Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent got behind the wheel of his Mercedes alongside teammate Jerry Brown and sped off, the prelude to a one-car accident that would leave Brown dead at 25 and Brent sitting in jail facing a felony charge of intoxicated manslaughter.

That it happened just a week after Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend to death, then drove to the Chiefs' training facility and took his own life with the same gun, raised questions about the league's responsibility to the young men it empowers and enriches.

“I don't know that anybody has the answer, to be honest. They're human beings, kids in most of the cases like this, and they're going to make mistakes,” said Dan Reeves, who played seven years for the Cowboys before launching an NFL coaching career that included four stops over four decades. “As a coach, you've got more than 50 players, if you count practice squad guys, that you're trying to keep an eye on. ... It's easy to get lulled into thinking you know which ones need a pat on the back and which ones a kick in the behind.”

How the NFL responds to this latest tragedy remains to be seen. Earlier this summer, cognizant of both the rising number of domestic violence and DUI incidents involving players, commissioner Roger Goodell pledged to address both problems.

“We are going to do some things to combat this problem because some of the numbers on DUIs and domestic violence are going up, and that disturbs me,” he told CBS Sports. “When there's a pattern of mistakes, something has got to change.”

In several important ways, player conduct already has improved significantly since Goodell took over the league.

In 2006, Goodell's first season, 68 players were arrested for crimes more severe than a traffic violation. Since then, arrests for crimes including domestic violence, drunken driving and gun possession are down 40 percent.

Yet, as Goodell noted, the number of incidents in the last year have climbed at an alarming rate — according to one study, 21 of the league's 32 teams had at least one player charged with domestic violence or sexual assault — and the tragedies involving players on successive weekends has already prompted accusations that the league isn't doing nearly enough.

“From here on, they're in uncharted waters,” Reeves said. “No one can point the best way forward. I was lucky in that sense: We never had to deal with the nightmare of losing a friend and teammate. One thing I'm certain of, though — it's going to haunt some of them for a long time to come.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press.

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