Ron Cook: NFL has to get tougher against its ‘criminal element’


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The NFL has had worse weeks, to be sure. The final week of June 2013 comes to mind. It’s never good when one of your star players is taken out of his home in handcuffs and charged with murder, as former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was. That story dominated that week’s news cycle to the point that the arrest of Cleveland Browns rookie free agent Ausar Walcott on an attempted murder charge almost went unnoticed.

Except at 345 Park Ave., New York, NY, 10154, of course.

NFL headquarters.

They never like their players to be involved in sordid activities even if it happens so often that they have to be getting used to it.

Look at last week:

• On Feb. 9, Missouri linebacker Michael Sam announced he is gay. NFL officials, coaches and players generally reacted well to Sam’s plans to become the first openly gay, active player in the league, but multiple general managers and player personnel people said anonymously that they wouldn’t draft him because they don’t want to deal with the distraction. That’s just swell.

• On Friday, the NFL-commissioned 144-page report on the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying case with the Miami Dolphins was released. It is strictly X-rated. If you like vile homophobic, racist and sexist talk, it’s for you. It graphically portrays Incognito, Dolphins linemen John Jerry and Mike Pouncey and line coach Jim Turner as sick, twisted individuals who deserve your pity as much as your anger. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s office when he read the report?

• Also on Friday, former star safety Darren Sharper was charged in Los Angeles with two counts of rape by using drugs. He also is a suspect in other rape cases. Sharper was a five-time Pro Bowler and a member of the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade team.

• On Saturday, Baltimore Ravens All-Pro running back Ray Rice was arrested in Atlantic City, N.J., after an incident with his fiancee. His attorney described it as a “very minor physical altercation.” You probably didn’t blink when you read the account. That sort of thing happens every day with an NFL player, right?

And you probably thought Goodell was overpaid at $44 million for 2012.

Former Steelers coach Chuck Noll was ahead of his time in 1977 when he talked of the “criminal element” in the NFL. He was referring to dastardly play by the Oakland Raiders secondary, not heinous off-the-field behavior. Now, the league seems as if it is filled with criminals, period.

We got another taste of it with the Steelers this month. Safety Ryan Clark, who is not expected back next season, went on ESPN and said he knew of teammates who smoked marijuana, not for recreational purposes, heh heh, but for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t exactly a breaking story, young men smoking weed. But it’s against the law in Pennsylvania, medicinally or recreationally. Clark went on to say there’s no way the league can stop the marijuana use because its testing policy is so lame. He probably stuck out his tongue at Goodell as he said it.

Goodell will deserve a raise if he can clean up the stinkin’ mess his league has become.

The ironic thing is, many NFL players think Goodell has too much power when it comes to league discipline. The truth is he doesn’t have enough. Punishment has to be more severe for the perps, up to and including expulsion from the league.

But it’s not just Goodell who has to get tougher. The NFL Players Association needs to wake up and stop fighting so hard to protect the rights of its criminals and start worrying more about serving those many good, decent players, who are just as sad and just as sick of the abhorrent actions as you are.

There needs to be major change.

It’s a crying shame when Rice will be welcomed back with open arms by the Ravens, but Sam won’t be welcomed by all into the NFL fraternity.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is among the many players who will be tolerant of Sam and his lifestyle. “If he can help your football team, then great. That’s what it’s all about.” Roethlisberger speaks for the majority, but it’s the minority that should trouble Goodell. The Incognito-Martin report is proof the NFL isn’t 100 percent ready for a gay player. It’s not just in the Dolphins’ over-the-top locker room that homophobic slurs are commonplace. It might not be as bad with other teams, but the slurs still are a part of the culture. It’s up to Goodell, the team owners and coaches to change it. Good luck with that.

The NFL is fortunate. It’s big, strong and bulletproof. It can survive anything.

But that doesn’t mean Goodell and the NFLPA shouldn’t take player-behavior issues even more seriously than they have. A good start would be throwing Incognito out of the league for good. Jerry, Pouncey and Turner, too.

Seriously.

Read the report.

Come back and tell me that punishment is too severe.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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