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Why We Shouldn't Excuse NFL Players

Although it has decreased slightly in popularity over the last decade, football remains America’s favorite sport amongst U.S. adults. Millions of spectators attend National Football League games, and millions more watch them on television. The league itself has enjoyed a 5% increase in television ratings in 2019, and last year brought in $3.71 billion in advertising revenue, an increase from 2017’s total of $3.58 billion.

Professional football continues to reap benefits from its immense popularity and appeal. Unfortunately, those benefits come at the cost of a vital cultural conversation about how we view and treat professional players who have broken the law and behaved abominably toward animals, children, and women.

The NFL is rife with examples of highly-paid athletes who are continually celebrated by fans despite their transgressions. These players are rarely served justice either by the league itself or by the law. One of the most infamous examples of player misconduct is former Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback, Michael Vick.

Recently, Vick was selected to be one of four captains for the 2020 NFL Pro Bowl game, causing a social media uproar and prompting a petition in protest. Sadly, the NFL's choice to name Vick a captain falls in line with their "forgive and forget" stance they have used too frequently in the past. This approach needs to change, because no matter how many fans they have or money they make, NFL players should not be excused from their actions on or off the field.

The Vick Case

In 2004, as a rising superstar in the NFL, Michael Vick signed a 10-year, $130 million contract with the Falcons -- the biggest in the league's history. But a few years earlier, as he began his pro career, Vick and three associates started a dogfighting operation called Bad Newz Kennels at Vick's property in Virginia.

Vick became a registered dog breeder and imported dogs from states across the country. The associates, with Vick's help, began training dogs to fight. If the dogs failed to pass their tests, they met horrifying and grisly fates: electrocution, execution by handgun, drowning, hanging, and in one case, breaking a dog's back. Vick hosted multiple dogfighting events at the property where thousands of dollars in gambling money changed hands.

In 2007, investigators obtained a search warrant for Vick's property and found clear evidence of dogfighting, including 54 beaten, scarred, and underfed pit bulls, a bloody fighting pit, and fighting paraphernalia. Vick initially pled not guilty and received support from the league, his fans, and fellow players, some of whom defended his actions as normal and harmless.

However, Vick's crimes were soon exposed, and he pled guilty to federal and state crimes. Vick, who had previously denied killing any dogs himself, failed a polygraph and admitted to hanging and killing two dogs. Ultimately, Vick received a sentence of 23 months in prison, followed by months of home-confinement and a three-year probation sentence.

Vick served his jail time and then volunteered with the Humane Society of the United States to rebuild his image. He returned to the NFL in 2009, signing with the Eagles and bringing ire down upon Philadelphia. Vick eventually received a lavish retirement ceremony from the Falcons in 2017. Vick was promptly signed by FOX Sports as a studio analyst and is currently a consultant with the Atlanta Legends. His cruelties and prison record have not damaged his reputation or ability to make money off of his playing career.

Frequent Excuses for Players' Criminal Behaviors

Vick may be the most notorious NFL player caught committing heinous crimes, but he is far from the only one. Many celebrated players are viewed as role models, even after they have used violence against women and children. Some of these players include:

Ben Rothlisberger, the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was accused of sexual assault twice, in 2009 and 2010. While he was initially suspended for six games for violating the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy, that penalty was reduced to four. He kept his Nike endorsement contract and signed a contract with the Steelers for $87.4 million in 2015.
Jameis Winston, the quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was drafted first overall in the 2015 NFL draft despite being accused of raping a female university student in 2012. During the 2018 season, Winston was suspended for three games for forcibly groping an Uber driver. As part of his negotiated suspension with the league, Winston apologized for his actions but did not admit wrongdoing. Winston will make $20.9 million with the Bucs this year.
Mark Walton, a running back for the Miami Dolphins, was arrested in 2019 for domestic violence against the pregnant mother of his child. The Dolphins released Walton from the team, but after he serves his time, he fully expects to be welcomed back into the league.

Notorious cases like those of Ray Rice and Kareem Hunt were cracked down upon by the league, but only because video existed of these incidents, and the NFL couldn't ignore it. Steroid abuse is rampant and while the law is catching up the abuse, the league continues to be slow in its responses. In the first 13 weeks of the 2019 season, 36 players have been suspended for violating the NFL's substance abuse and performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) policy. While a few of these players were released from their respective teams, many receive three-game suspensions and escape criminal charges altogether.

Money Talks

The NFL is not concerned with its own players' criminal conduct or well-being. As long as people keep watching on television, attending games, and bringing in advertising revenue, the league will operate as usual.

Fans can change the league's attitude toward violence and drug use by turning off the game. Millennials are leading the way with their mistrust of the NFL, and we should follow suit in holding players accountable for their actions. Contact the NFL's sponsors, express your concern that they support a league that condones violence and assault, then stop purchasing the companies' products. Let's show that criminal behavior is not acceptable, even amongst professional athletes, and perhaps we can bring about actual change in the NFL and our culture.

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