No Double Standard: NFL Must Punish Irsay

There is no compassion for an NFL player who is arrested on drunk-driving and drug charges, faces four felony counts and is seen wobbling into a police station on a viral video. Rather, he’s dismissed as a problem child and cited as the latest example of why Roger Goodell’s kingdom is inundated with behavioral issues. The league likely suspends him, fines him, counsels him and, unless he’s a star whose conduct is overwhelmed by his value, gradually phases him out.

Jim Irsay is not a player. He is the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, one of 32 men who paid Goodell his most recent annual wage of $44.2 million and, thus, one of 32 men who effectively are Goodell’s superiors. It’s easy for the commissioner to punish a player in big trouble with the law. It’s not as easy to punish one of the people responsible for his employment.

Yet if Irsay is guilty of the aforementioned crimes — and his drug problem is the worst-kept secret in Indiana, with his erratic Twitter observations serving as possible prime evidence for the prosecution — Goodell has no choice but to make an even stronger example of Irsay than he would of a player in the same situation. Considering the owners pushed for and approved the conduct policy, it would be the height of hypocrisy not to hold themselves to even higher standards than the players and other employees. As it is, Goodell has been curiously mum on the legal limbo of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who still could be indicted amid a grand jury probe into his truck-stop empire, Pilot Flying J, and whether companies were duped out of millions of dollars in fuel rebates. Now, in the latest folder on a New York office desk already piled with serious problems, Goodell must address the Irsay mess while knowing he’s being examined closely by the NFL players and their union.

“I want to see what the NFL does about this Jim Irsay situation … if a player loses a game check no matter the amount he should lose a game day,” tweeted Roddy White, the Atlanta Falcons receiver.

“I’m guessing a million dollar fine will come which is nothing to a man that makes billions,” White tweeted again.

For now, Irsay needs serious help. Privately, his confidantes have been praying for some time that his troubles wouldn’t lead to a tragic ending, and, if nothing else, at least his arrest didn’t involve a car accident or another person. Irsay’s original problem was prescription drugs, dating back to a painkiller dependency after a series of orthopedic surgeries in 2002. He has claimed to have kicked his habit and tweeted as recently as October, “I don’t drink…haven’t in over 15 years.” But police in Hamilton County, Ind., say Irsay failed several sobriety tests and was found with “Schedule IV” drugs, with Xanax and Ambien possibly fitting the category. On the street, of course, those can be considered recreational drugs. And Irsay’s dramatic weight loss in recent months — from 235 pounds to 165, according to Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz — is consistent with rampant concerns that his issues have spiraled out of control.

Said the Colts in a statement: “We are gathering information at this time regarding last night’s incident involving Jim Irsay. The team will issue additional statements when the facts are sorted and we are aware of the next steps to this process. Many fans have reached out to express their concern and we appreciate their support.”

Indeed, there is concern for Irsay. But drunk drivers can kill, as the NFL has asserted in doling out significant penalties to players involved in intoxicated driving episodes. The league office says an owner is subject to the same discipline as a player or any other league or team employee. According to the conduct policy, “All persons associated with the NFL are required to avoid `conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.’ This requirement applies to players, coaches, other team employees, owners, game officials, and all others privileged to work in the National Football League.”

We’ll see if that is merely legal lip service. If the NFL is the monolithic model of all American sports leagues, ESPN represents a similarly large, powerful presence in American sports media. That company has made unfair examples of some employees, including me, who have had legal issues. All I ask is that any company with a stern behavioral policy apply it to all employees, including high-profile executives who write the policy. Two years ago, during a business meeting with a TV producer and another former ESPN sportscaster at a Beverly Hills hotel, I witnessed a prominent ESPN executive stumbling through the lobby bar and generally making an ass of himself as customers howled. He wobbled by our table — he didn’t recognize me, a veteran of 2,000-some appearances on his network’s air — and he gave his room number to a woman. To make a point, I contacted ESPN president John Skipper and reminded him that double standards should not exist.

He thanked me for the “constructive” criticism, had me write one piece for and paid me.

I doubt that the man, vital for decades in the ESPN creative structure, was reprimanded. I bring up the story not out of bitterness or spite, but to suggest what might happen if Goodell has to discipline Irsay.

Roddy White isn’t the only one watching.

We’re all watching.