With all the talk recently about the legal issues associated with the NFL lockout, relatively little attention has been paid to the release of Plaxico Burress from the New York Prison where he spent the last two years. The former Giants receiver pled guilty in 2009 to weapons charges associated with an incident in a New York City club where he accidentally shot himself in the leg. Burress was one of the league’s best receivers, and his incarceration was a serious blow to the NFL and its fans.
But there is an interesting undertone to the Burress situation. Over the years, NFL players have had a variety of run-
ins with the law, often involving some form of violent behavior. The phenomenon is fairly unique to football, and has led the NFL to implement policies to more effectively crack down on image damaging behavior. Yet, the rules of the game itself encourage the infliction of pain and suffering on one’s adversaries. Is it really fair to cheer destructive hits on the field, while simultaneously holding NFL players to otherwise high standards of behavior by virtue of their celebrity status?
Well yes, I think so. But the reality of the situation is that football isn’t like other sports in many key respects, most obviously in terms of its sheer violence. And then there are the lasting health issues that are just now being figured out, the painfully short careers, and the amusing reticence to punish players for steroid use.
The newly implemented rule changes serve as a nearly perfect metaphor for the NFL’s back and forth violence-civility dance. Some players get hurt, a minor adjustment is made, and all is back to normal. The original problem, however, is left unresolved: How do you encourage some hits (legal) while discouraging others (not legal)? Doesn’t the same sort of logic apply, at least a little, to off-the-field conduct?