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The NFL Has a Drinking Problem, and the Fix Is Simple

But first, the League needs to admit there’s an issue

Late last week, the Washington Redskins lived up to their reputation as one of the most vile organizations in professional sports, firing General Manager Scot McCloughan because of his alcohol problem. Redskin brass then proceeded to assassinate McCloughan’s character in the press, leaking stories about him drinking on the job and portraying him as an incorrigible lush.

It was a disgusting act of public shaming, not to mention hypocritical considering those in the Redskins front office are reputed to be a boozy bunch.

But these weren’t the actions of one famously incompetent, morally decrepit franchise in otherwise upstanding organization. They’re part of a lengthy track record of the NFL handling alcoholism in the most insensitive, arbitrary possible manner

Last December, the Arizona Cardinals cut wide receiver Michael Floyd after he was arrested for a DUI. A video of the arrest later surfaced, revealing that Floyd was passed out behind the wheel and unresponsive to cops banging on his car windows. But the league refrained from suspending him, and he eventually went on to win a Super Bowl ring as the Patriots picked him up within a week of his release from the Cardinals.

And just last month, the Atlanta Falcons hired Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. Sarkisian was unceremoniously fired from his head coaching job at USC 18 months earlier after repeatedly being drunk on the job, including shouting drunken profanities at a pep rally, before being ushered offstage. (More broadly, alcohol- and drug-induced DUIs are the most common crime among NFL players.)

The inconsistency is baffling. Some executives are punished for their alcohol problems (e.g., McCloughan), while others are embraced, their mishaps quickly forgotten (e.g., Sarkisian); still others fall somewhere in the middle (e.g., Floyd). The league has PSAs about domestic abuse and the dangers of concussions, but not for alcohol or drug addiction.

Nor is the fix difficult. All the league needs to do is institute a program in which players and executives with drinking problems get paid leave to attend an outpatient rehabilitation care. After rehab, the employee would be able to return to his team, but his tenure would be contingent upon his continuing outpatient rehab and/or regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous.

It would make the league seem progressive and caring, and would score it a much-needed PR victory. Instead, NFL teams fire their alcoholic employees with no regard for how that might worsen their condition.

Alcoholism is far easier to address than the NFL’s other nagging PR crises: (1) The head trauma caused by the sport, and the resulting neurological illnesses among players; and (2) the troubling number of NFL players who commit sexual and domestic assault.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the NFL’s cowardice on the subject of alcoholism is former Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel. Two years ago, Manziel, the NFL equivalent of Justin Bieber, was kinda, maybe forced into rehab after there were a number of reports of him partying into the wee hours, getting violent with fans and domestic partners, missing practices and showing up “noticeably drunk.”

Everyone who paid attention to pro football agreed Manziel had, at the very least, an alcohol problem, if not full-blown alcoholism (and none of his actions since have indicated otherwise). He displayed all the classic signs of alcoholism: erratic, violent behavior, and continuing to drink despite alcohol negatively affecting his personal and professional lives. Once a first-round draft pick, Manziel is now an NFL pariah, out of the league entirely after playing just two seasons.

Even then the NFL refused to say the words alcoholism or alcoholic in relation to Manziel. He spent two months in rehab, but neither the NFL nor the Browns said it was specifically for alcohol, or alcohol-related behavioral issues. The official line was Manziel was in rehab to “improve in order to be a better family member, friend and teammate.”

The NFL’s stance on alcoholism is all the more hypocritical when you take into account the fact that teams dispense addictive painkilling medications like candy. Teams so readily administer painkillers that just last week, former players filed a class-action lawsuit alleging for pumping them full of opiates. Meanwhile the league still suspends players for smoking marijuana, which many players view as a more “responsible pain management solution.” Judging by its actions, the NFL’s stance seems to be that it’s fine to have players doped to the gills on pharmaceutical-grade narcotics, but if they smoke weed or display signs of indulging in a few drinks too many, they’re a liability.

The NFL could be afraid of upsetting the beer or liquor brands that constitute a substantial portion of their advertising revenue. But advocating responsible drinking and effectively treating alcoholism aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re complementary.

Alcoholism is a serious but highly treatable disease. It affects more than 7 percent of the population. Many have encountered it in their own lives, whether among friends, family members or colleagues, and would likely applaud the NFL for approaching the subject honestly. But still, the league prefers to ignore, ostracize or enable its workers struggling with alcoholism, only adding to the stigma.

To be clear, the NFL shouldn’t institute some rigid rules governing every instance of alcohol abuse among its workers. The line between between a problem drinker like Manziel, and, say, Rob Gronkowski, the hard-partying Patriots tight end whose love of booze hasn’t hindered his play, is a fine one, and each situation must be judged individually. (There’s no accounting for Gronk’s personal life, but for all his public drunkenness, he’s never been implicated in any crimes or controversies.)

But first, the league has to admit it has alcohol problem. Any literature on substance abuse (or any addiction, for that matter) will tell you the necessary first step to addressing the condition is acknowleding the problem exists. Without that honest self-assessment, the NFL is like a stubborn lush deluding himself that he’s still got it all under control.