NFL, players union at odds over alcohol-related incidents
By Ralph N. Paulk
Published: Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, 9:26 p.m.
Steelers rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu considers himself blessed to be alive after a drunken rampage through the South Side left him staring down the barrel of two police officers' guns in October.
Ta'amu, 22, was driving a sport utility vehicle that hit several cars on 14th Street, leading to his arrest following a chase and scuffle in which an officer punched him twice, according to a police report.
“I appreciate having been given a second chance,” said Ta'amu, who was suspended two weeks without pay, released, then re-signed to the practice squad. “I want to try and live my dream.”
Ta'amu registered a blood-alcohol level of .196, higher than that of Dallas Cowboys lineman Josh Brent, who was charged with intoxication manslaughter in a one-car accident that killed teammate Jerry Brown earlier this month. Brent's blood-alcohol content reportedly was 0.18, twice the legal limit.
Ta'amu's incident and Brown's death illuminate a seemingly alarming problem of alcohol abuse in the NFL.
Typically, drug abuse and use of performance-enhancing drugs dominate the headlines, in part, because the league has a definitive policy on fines, suspensions and other penalties.
There remains a degree of ambiguity concerning alcohol-related incidents, mostly because of a sharp divide between the league and NFL Players Association. The sides are engaged in a tug of war over what steps to take in an effort to deter behavior — such as excessive drinking — not specifically covered by the league's personal-conduct policy.
Currently, teams handle punishment for players involved in alcohol incidents, Steelers' union representative Ryan Clark said.
Steelers linebacker Larry Foote contends that excessive drinking looms as a potentially greater problem than drugs in the NFL.
“From a spiritual standpoint, abusing alcohol leads to a lot of trouble,” Foote said. “It's an issue that has to be brought front and center so everyone can understand what's going on.
“I think some of the younger guys forget the stories about other players involved in tragedies related to excessive drinking. It's not just an NFL problem but a problem for everybody who abuses alcohol. In the NFL, we should be able to protect each other, but there has to be awareness of how bad things are.”
There have been eight drug-related arrests this season, mostly marijuana possession. There have been 16 alcohol-related arrests this season involving players and front office personnel, according to NBC Sports' ProFootballTalk.com.
Clark and Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president for law and labor policy, are hesitant to agree with Foote. They argue it's difficult to differentiate the degree to which drug and alcohol abuse have impacted the league.
“I don't know how you can rate which is a bigger problem,” Birch said. “We need to be vigilant because both are serious issues.”
“I think maybe the incidents and accidents have increased,” Clark said. “But since I've been in this league, I've known guys to drink. It's not regulated by the constitution and the laws. So it can't really be regulated in our game. It's different than drugs.”
Clark and Birch disagree that the league should impose stricter penalties, particularly suspensions, for alcohol-related incidents.
“The league has proposed to increase the discipline on DUI and alcohol-related events for the last four years, and the union hasn't agreed,” Birch said. “We believe the system of fines isn't having a deterring effect. It's not deterring players from not driving their vehicles when they're intoxicated. We have to have suspensions, and they have to be meaningful in order to change that behavior.”
Domonique Foxworth, the NFLPA president, said the union hasn't received a written or verbal proposal from the league to deal with the issue.
“We hope the upcoming meetings with the league offer an opportunity to discuss what we do from here,” he said. “But we all believe that education is more important than penalties.
“With what happened recently, we understand that punishment afterward does nothing. We need a neutral arbitrator to discuss the results of discipline so they can move in a fast and efficient manner to prevent further harm to players. It's something that should be on the table as well. I know Ryan feels as strongly about that as I do.”
Clark reiterated the NFLPA's stance that because alcohol-related incidents and drug abuse are different problems, the same rules of discipline shouldn't apply.
“This is unprecedented territory because there are no (collective bargaining agreement) guidelines or rules to regulating fines and suspensions for alcohol-related incidents,” Clark said. “But performance-enhancement drugs directly affect a player's performance on the field. For as much as anyone may think a DUI is a black eye for the league, a guy cheating is a bigger incident — that's why the league can regulate it — but it's difficult to regulate alcohol because it's not illegal.”
Clark added that the union has resisted agreeing to stricter punishments by the league, mostly because it doesn't want to cede additional power to commissioner Roger Goodell and “total control” of what happens if a player makes a mistake away from the field, especially involving alcohol.
However, Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, vice president of the union's Executive Committee, appeared to concede a position of strength to Goodell when asked what he considers the best approach moving forward in dealing with alcohol-related incidents.
“Roger has the power,” Batch said bluntly. “It doesn't matter what I think. It's not my issue.”
Birch said there are options for the league and union, namely the implementation of more effective programs centered on prevention. He added it's imperative that the NFLPA return to the bargaining table to attack the issue.
“I think there have been times when (the union) has expressed a willingness to address the issue,” Birch said. “Even though the rate of incidents we have are lower than the general public, we still understand the impact those incidents have on our league.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 9,878 people died in drunken-driving crashes in 2011 in the United States, accounting for 31 percent of all traffic deaths.
Clark said the union isn't prepared to act unless the commissioner signals a readiness to compromise on other pressing issues, particularly complete autonomy to levy suspensions such as those involving the alleged bounty program involving the New Orleans Saints.
“I would like to get the league back at the negotiation table about all this power Roger Goodell has,” Clark said. “So if they want to get to the table about that, let's get to the table on the other issues so we can talk.”
The league, Birch said, would rather have alcohol-related incidents fall within the purview of the personal-conduct policy. But the absence of a clear precedent has forced the league to relent on imposing penalties that could face scrutiny under appeal.
“We understand we are in the public prism and that the things our players — all league employees — do is important,” Birch said. “We need to attack it, and I think given these recent incidents we'll see if we can come up with solutions.”
Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said the only effective way to deal with alcohol abuse is for players to accept responsibility.
“I won't put this on the league as if they're not doing enough,” Hampton said. “We're all men, and there are no kids in the NFL. So you have to suffer the consequences.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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