Professional Athletes: Role Models or Criminals?

Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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Professional athletes have been role models for children and adults alike since the beginning of time. They are often thought of superhuman, celebrities, and to some—even Gods due to their incredible physical strength, and unnatural talent. Professional athletes are given many things that the average American only dreams about; ranging from multi-million dollar paychecks, expensive cars, high profile romances, to exotic vacations. Oh, and being above the law. Numerous high profile players have been arrested multiple times throughout their career, escaping with nothing more than a slap on the wrist from law enforcement, or the NFL.

Even those players convicted, and sent to prison for their “sentence” will be able to return to the football field after being released. Over the past decade the incidents regarding player’s conduct have increased dramatically all the while dragging the NFL’s reputation and ethics through the mud. It begs the question--should these athletes who are the role models for millions, be above the law simply because they are entertainers and celebrities? The answer is no. In my opinion a drastic change needs to happen immediately regarding this growing problem.

No longer should players be able to go unpunished for committing crimes. However, to find the solution for this growing predicament—is to establish what factors contribute directly to it. The problem goes beyond the athletes being able to go unpunished for committing crimes. It starts with the league’s menial punishments, team owner’s irresponsible player management, fan attitudes, and the character of the player’s themselves. On the other hand, there are people, including; fans, agents, and of course the players themselves, who believe that the punishments being given now are too severe.

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I would just like to show those people another view of this debate—the view of an everyday person. In April 2007 NFL commissioner Roger Goodell put into effect new policies regarding player conduct based on the high number of players being arrested for major crimes. Due to the nature of the transgressions NFL officials began to worry about losing fans deterred by the league’s image. The new policy included longer suspensions, heavier fines, and team accountability for their players committing crimes.

The new policy includes “requiring teams to pay the league a portion of the salaries forfeited by players suspended for violating policies regarding personal conduct” (Schrotenboer). Goodell’s goal is to hold team owners and managers partially responsible for the actions of the players on their roster. This forces the decision makers to put more consideration into drafting and signing troubled athletes, because now it is their money—not just their image at stake. Although the policy is a step in the right direction it is not doing near enough to clean up the league because talent is more important than character to a team.

One example of this is Cincinnati Bengal’s receiver Chris Henry who was released by the team only after being arrested six times between December 2005 and March 2009 for crimes ranging from possession of marijuana, sex with a minor, DUI, and possession of and aggravated assault with a gun (Brandt). However, even with his arrest log reading like a novel, Henry has served a total of just eighty-eight days in prison for his crimes. This sentence came only after the second incident concerning relations with a minor.

But, the Bengals kept him on the roster, even though four of the six incidents occurred after Goodell’s new conduct policy was put into effect. As far as the harsher punishment Goodell promised, Henry received a total a three game suspension for each of the incidents before being cut following the most recent assault arrest (Carpenter, Maske). Who should be to blame for allowing this criminal to go free and continue making his millions? The ultimate blame needs to be placed on not only Henry himself, but also the owner and manager of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Coaches have a large impact on the players on their teams. By allowing them to misbehave, they are basically telling the players what they do off the field does not matter as long as you win. In order to help clean up the NFL, coaches need to set an example by putting the law before the sport. Being in charge of a multi-million dollar business such as a professional football team, head coaches are under immense pressure to win, and will do so by any means. Marvin Lewis, the head coach of Chris Henry’s former team, the Bengals is a perfect example of winning at any cost—all the while denying so.

In the article Player Arrest Put the NFL in A Defensive Mode, authors Les Carpenter and Mark Maske point out Lewis’ actions. During a 2007 press conference focused on the eight Bengals players arrested in the past year, including one player, Chris Henry, who had been arrested three times. Coach Lewis was asked to give his opinion on the player’s behavior. He responded by bitterly condemning the player’s actions. “It is an embarrassment to our organization…It doesn’t matter what you do for a living or who you are, you’ve got to follow those rules and laws” (Carpenter and Maske).

This statement came from the leader of these players, as well as the man who only suspended Henry for two games after his prison stint. However, Lewis is not the only coach to allow felon players to escape punishment—because they are needed to win. In order to reverse the coaches attitudes toward the law there are things that need to be changed. For example, coaches should be required to pay a fine for every player who breaks the conduct code, or gets arrested. The new policy requires the team to pay—but not the coaches. Even if fining the coaches was put into effect it wouldn’t alter the situation on its own.

To have maximum impact on the league as a whole, another avenue needs to be taken. One way is suggested by Mike Florio in his article, NFL should strip draft picks from rogue teams. “The only way to get teams to avoid players with a history of legal problems—or, even better, help the player change his unlawful ways—is to strip the team of draft picks” (Florio). However, in order for this to happen, league officials such as Goodell need to introduce harsher penalties and fines to have any impact on players, coaches, and owners alike.

However, for some people the current punishments being enforced are completely over the top already. When Goodell revealed his plans for the new policy in 2007 he was met with enthusiasm, praise, doubt, and protest---and that was just from fans. This shocked me that there is an NFL fan out there so dedicated to his or her favorite player that they oppose punishing offenders? Surprisingly the answer is yes. On April 1st, 2009 Cleveland Brown’s wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth left a Miami nightclub at two o-clock in the morning, got behind the wheel of his Bentley and began to drive home.

Three miles from his destination he was approaching what he thought was a yellow light and sped up to avoid it changing. However, due to his drunken stupor he failed to notice it was actually a red light—which he ran seconds before striking, and killing a pedestrian using the crosswalk. Stallworth was then charged with DUI vehicular manslaughter and released on $200,000 bail. His punishment? Thirty days in prison, two years house arrest—oh and a one season suspension from the league. Stallworth killed a man and will spend a total of thirty days in county jail, and forfeit a maximum of $745,000 salary for killing a man.

To many people this is an utterly inconceivable notion. Stallworth killed an innocent man by choosing to drive intoxicated, and because of his status as one of the league’s best players he did less jail time than most drug dealers. Following Stallworth’s arrest all eyes turned to Goodell and the rest of the NFL officials to see what punishment, under the still new polictallworth’s arrest all eyes turned to Goodell and the rest of the NFL officials to see what punishment, under the new policy would be given. Stallworth was suspended a total of sixteen games during the time which he serves house arrest.

To me, that is not punishment. However, others do not agree—and they are another piece of the NFL’s problem. One of those people is La Mont Chappell who writes in an article addressing Goodell’s choice of punishment for Stallworth and other criminal players. “Donte Stallworth deserves some sort of punishment for getting drunk, choosing to drive drunk, hitting a pedestrian, and ultimately killing that pedestrian…It is unfair to Donte Stallworth to be suspended for such a long period of time because NFL players do not have long careers” (Chappell).

To Chappell and other protestors of increasing punishment where do they draw a line? In another article reaming Goodell NFL agent Peter Schaffer writes, “It is clear our new NFL commissioner has pushed the punitive bar too high, to the point of inappropriate excessive…in Stallworth’s case—the one major difference between a murder or some other type of intentional crime and a DUI manslaughter is that there was not the original intent to do harm to another human” (Schaffer). People such as Chappell and Schaffer; fans and agents are the final component to fixing the NFL’s image.

Athletes will continue to commit crimes because loyal fans, and money hungry agents will make excuses for their actions, something that can be changed. For example, agents get paid big bucks when athletes get paid big bucks. So, if an athlete is suspended, it hurts the agent’s pockets as well. A new policy could be added that will fine agents as well as players for breaking the law. That will prevent agents from representing the players that are multiple offenders—therefore setting a positive example to the public, and making players think twice about doing something stupid.

In then end the NFL’s image problem can be chalked up to many different sources and comprise of many different factors and unless something is done to counteract the current trend nothing will change. The commissioner took a small step forward in 2007 by implementing the new policy—but he needs to step up as the leader he is and make punishments and fines that will impact players into changing their ways. Sure, there will be critics, but that is what it takes to regain the respectable name the NFL once had. It will not be simple, and it may take time, but it needs to be done.

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Professional Athletes: Role Models or Criminals?. (2017, Apr 08). Retrieved from

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