When the news broke of Colts owner Jim Irsay's arrest for a DWI and possession of prescription drugs, the sports media struck a chord largely of sympathy and compassion. The Indianapolis Star published a media roundup that it summarized as "many Indianapolis journalists expressing their concern for the Colts owner, who admitted in 2002 he had an addiction to pain killers." Indeed, many of the tweets are well wishes, hoping Irsay gets the help he clearly needs (and it sounds like that has happened, with a statement from the team that Irsay has checked into rehab). While this may be going a bit soft on someone who was operating a vehicle while impaired and could very well have hurt someone, the sentiment is a humane one.
The problem is that such sympathy is rarely extended toward NFL players, who are either condemned for their thoughtless actions or ignored as humans entirely, analyzed solely through the lens of on-field decisions.
Peter King, one of the most prolific and respected voices in the NFL media, is a perfect example of this double standard. In his weekly Tuesday column, King devoted several paragraphs to detailing Irsay's passion for the Colts and, generally, being an all-around caring samaritan:
The first step here will be for Irsay to deal with the law, and to get the help he needs. Irsay loves being around his team. He loves being an owner. He loves the life, and what he can do for people because of that life. For goodness sakes, he tweets transactions. He gives out tickets in Twitter contests. When a former Colts beat writer, Len Pasquarelli, was ready to be discharged from a Phoenix hospital after bypass surgery while covering the Super Bowl in 2008, Irsay sent word that he wanted to ferry Pasquarelli home to Atlanta on his private plane, with a nurse on board. On Monday, Pasquarelli wrote about that for a story on his site, pickthedraft.com, just to show people that Irsay is a big-hearted guy who, obviously, has some demons.
This "get the help he needs" sentiment was a common one in The Star's roundup, but is rarely extended to players busted for DUIs or DWIs. Last September, Aldon Smith was arrested on DUI charges -- his second DUI charge in a year -- blowing twice the legal limit at 7 a.m. on a Thursday morning. Despite Smith announcing he would check himself into a rehab facility, King wrote nothing even approaching his compassion for Irsay, discussing the entire issue through the dehumanizing and paternalistic lens of the 49ers' personnel department:
I would not have played Smith Sunday were it my decision. I wouldn't have abandoned him and let him go off to get in more trouble than he already was in. He would have been with the team all weekend -- at Saturday meetings, on the sideline Sunday -- but there are some things that are just more important than playing in a football game. If it sends the wrong message to sit a guy and pay him $230,000, so be it. I just don't think it's right to let him play.
One other thing: The next big issue on Roger Goodell's agenda -- and on DeMaurice Smith's as well -- has to be tougher penalties on DUIs. This isn't a partisan issue. It's potentially a life-and-death one, for the drivers and the innocents in their way.
In February of 2010, Vincent Jackson pleaded guilty to his second DUI charge since coming into the NFL. Peter King's reaction via Twitter:
RT @ProFootballTalk: Vincent Jackson will get jail time for DUI guilty plea http://tinyurl.com/y9d5p9n ... Big impact on RFA WRs.- Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) February 23, 2010
In September of 2010, Braylon Edwards was arrested for a DUI and was suspended for the first quarter of the weekend's game against the Dolphins. King's reaction in his Monday Morning QB column was, again, focused on league policy and on-field issues:
We've all had time to debate whether the punishment of sitting out a quarter was severe enough -- that was my prediction Saturday on NBC; I knew Rex Ryan wanted Edwards to sit out only a play or a series, but upper management would have none of that. Know this, if the Jets had benched Edwards, they'd have been the first team to do so after a player's DUI since 2009 began. Now it'll be interesting to see if Edwards can rehab his image, pay his debt to society and team with Holmes to give the Jets a skill-player set that can win more playoff games."
Again, the focus is not on a man who may have issues but about being a good football player, as if drinking and driving is somehow negatively correlated with how well you can play wide receiver. With Aldon Smith, Vincent Jackson and Braylon Edwards -- just three examples of a long list of NFL players with DUIs since 2010 -- King demonstrates none of the humanity or expresses similar well wishes as he did with Irsay. Players are tools that don't function when getting suspended by the NFL for DUIs, whereas Irsay is a person with a problem.
This double standard isn't just limited to King. Philip Wilson, a writer for the aforementioned Indianapolis Star, wrote in 2010 about four Colts players getting arrested for DUIs in less than a year:
That disturbs me more than the fun-loving life of the party going overboard and subjecting himself to the smelly elements of a canal [referencing punter Pat McAfee's arrest]. That, unfortunately, raises more questions, deserved or not, about the team's direction. We know guys got in trouble when Tony Dungy was coach. But this is four times in less than a year. And the year isn't over yet. Coach Jim Caldwell can't be babysitting his young pups every evening, but at some point, the organization has to get through to these guys that such displays reflect so poorly on this team. It goes beyond stupid.
His reaction to Irsay's arrest:
Michael Rosenberg at Sports Illustrated wrote a scathing reaction to Braylon Edwards' arrest, saying "If Edwards doesn't change his ways soon, his legacy will be that of a knucklehead" and "Everything about this arrest says Edwards' priorities are out of whack." He also took a paragraph to bash Edwards for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Yet, Jim Irsay did the same thing, and Rosenberg's only reaction was to retweet a Chicago Sun-Times columnist's story about receiving flowers from Irsay when he was diagnosed with cancer, followed with, "class. Hope he gets better."
Upon Irsay's arrest, the media's dominant narrative seemed to be that he's a troubled man but a class act who needs help, not a dangerous addict who could have killed someone by driving under the influence. Some might argue this difference is rooted in Irsay's admitted addiction, whereas DUIs are just a stupid, potentially disastrous thing someone does when they're drunk. But this oversimplification simply isn't true. Most people arrested for DUIs have a complicated relationship with substance abuse. According to a 2001 study, 91 percent of male DUI offenders met lifetime criteria for alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence, while more than 80 percent of DUI arrests (male or female) have a problem with either alcohol or another drug. If you're willing to extend sympathy to Jim Irsay, then the overwhelming odds are that any NFL player arrested for driving while impaired suffers a similar disease and needs help as well.
Everything said about Irsay is probably true, and we should hope he gets better. The problem is when we don't do the same for everyone. When writing about their arrests, few mentioned Braylon Edwards's charity or Aldon Smith's charitable efforts or Vincent Jackson's charity, but many sports writers quickly jumped to defend Irsay's reputation. Like Irsay, these players are probably good people with complex problems. More than that, though, they shouldn't be discussed as "pups" to babysit or "knuckleheads" or market-shifting entities. Even if they're not "good" people, they're still people who need help, which should be enough.