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Personal Fouls

The Rams and the Raiders are gone, but tawdry off-the-field shenanigans by former and present National Football League players remain to foul the attitude of Los Angeles fans.

The wild tale of Darryl Henley, who was a cornerback for the Rams, is upsetting and ongoing. In recent days, authorities linked Henley to accusations of major drug dealing in the federal detention facility here where he has been held on a 1995 conviction for drug trafficking. In addition, prosecutors maintain he was involved in alleged plots to kill a federal judge and a former Rams cheerleader.

These developments prompt some larger observations about the vulnerability of pro football, and indeed all sports, to changing attitudes among the fans. Of course, a few bad apples do not make for a rotten barrelful. But the league, always a shrewd promoter of the game as family entertainment, has been conspicuously quiet about this and other recent embarrassments, and it shouldn’t be.

Take the indictment for possession of cocaine and marijuana of Dallas Cowboys star Michael Irvin. In the case of the Cowboys, even true believers in “America’s Team” have been wondering where things are headed. One, a Dallas preacher who sermonizes on character in sports, now worries that the “Cowboys’ luster has been diminished.” Fans’ attitudes can be fluid. One day they may find bedrock American virtues in the competition and pageantry of their pastimes. Another they simply may conclude that the bad guys have taken over.

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The NFL, to its credit, has developed a drug policy and affirmed its intention to subject players convicted of drug-related violations to disciplinary action like suspensions. Well and good. But the commissioner’s office and the owners need to be prepared to speak forcefully and take strong steps, even if they involve the stars, so-called franchise players. The perception that this is a game played by thugs and trash-talkers has to be avoided.


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