Sometime soon, before it’s too late and their lives are ruined, Von Miller and Aldon Smith should be placed in a dark room with a big-screen TV. They’ll be required to sit for two hours while a new Showtime documentary, on the triumph and tragedy of Lawrence Taylor, plays for their eyes, ears and thick skills. When Taylor saw the movie for the first time during a recent New York City screening, he broke down and sobbed.
“To see your life through the eyes of others, I mean, that’s a bitch,” he told the audience afterward. “That’s hard to handle. And I mean, I really apologize to the people who, if I harmed them in any way, especially my kids and stuff. It’s very, very humbling.”
Like Taylor back in the day, Miller and Smith are gifted, dominant pass-rushers. But also like Taylor, their demons are destroying them off the field and adding another layer of mess to the relentless dark-headline avalanche that is the 21st-century NFL. No longer can the league get through a week without another disturbing player-conduct issue. While Aaron Hernandez sits in the slammer, awaiting his Massachusetts murder trial, Miller and Smith are extending the trail of trouble, clouding the regular season with their own unique twists on off-field misconduct. In Smith’s case, his problems are directly impacting the surprising demise of the San Francisco 49ers, who are 1-2 and mired in the first crisis of the Jim Harbaugh era after a double whammy: being blown out by the Seattle Seahawks and having to deal with Smith’s substance-abuse issues, which has forced him to seek treatment and miss at least one game.
Miller, star linebacker of a Denver Broncos team that needs him to reach the Super Bowl, is being accused of trying to rig the league’s drug-testing procedures via his friendship with a urine collector. According to ESPN, the collector was “star-struck” by his new relationship with Miller, and the two worked in cahoots to use someone else’s urine specimen as a substitute for Miller’s dirty pee. This, by the way, is a practice Taylor fessed up to doing multiple times, if you saw the Showtime doc, and it leads to the common-sense conclusion that a corrupt practice has been happening in the NFL and all sports for decades. A shocking story, it is not.
Yet it’s troublesome in the way the league has handled it. If true, attempting to bait-and-switch a urine test, while encouraging a urine collector to help, certainly is grounds for a one-year suspension. That’s especially the case when a second collector, according the ESPN, blew the whistle when he realized Miller wasn’t even in the city where he supposedly gave his urine sample. The operative phrase here is slip-shod. But for some reason, what originally was a four-game suspension for a dirty test only was increased to a six-game suspension, which Miller currently is serving while Peyton Manning and the Broncos try to keep pace without him in the AFC West, where the Andy Reid-and-Alex Smith-infused Kansas City Chiefs are 3-0.
The question must be asked: Would the NFL impose an “in-between” suspension for the Broncos’ best defensive player to protect Manning, one of the league’s endearing golden boys? With the Super Bowl in New York this season for the first time, does the league want to help keep alive the potential participation of Manning — darling of Madison Avenue and “Q” ratings everywhere — by limiting Miller’s suspension length? Missing six games wouldn’t be fatal to Denver’s chances; missing the entire season would be. And forget about the NFL reopening the case and issuing a longer suspension. Once all parties agreed on the six-game ban, it can’t be increased, despite the other problems in Miller’s frazzled life — such as driving with a suspended license, among other repeated traffic violations that have turned him into Page One news in Broncos-daffy Colorado.
The Broncos are getting off light. Remember, Miller already has been caught lying about his dirty test after writing this on his Twitter feed upon hearing the initial reports: “Seeing reports abt 4 game susp. I know I did nothing wrong. I’m sure this’ll be resolved fairly. Disapp. Broncos have 2 open camp like this.” The Broncos have been criticized, rightfully, for not taking the Miller situation seriously enough, forgetting that they’ve had major DUI issues with two prominent front-office members. Manning doesn’t deserve the damage from Miller fallout, but the organization does.
Another week, another crisis for Roger Goodell. Drug problems in football never have created the same mass consternation as baseball’s performance-enhancing issues — it’s just assumed football players are users in a savage sport, while baseball purists are protective of eras and accompanying statistics impacted by PEDs. Still, after years of talk about keeping the NFL clean and safe, now we have evidence that drug tests have been easily rigged. The name of the collection company is Drug Free Sport, and according to ESPN, the company is eyeing the new fingerprinting technology — it’s available on the latest iPhone — as a way of making sure urine specimens aren’t routinely swapped.
As if the Miller problem wasn’t damning enough, then you have Smith, another All-Pro linebacker who can’t stay off the police blotter and clearly has a substance-abuse issue. He was arrested at 7 a.m., just an hour before he was due to report for practice at the San Francisco 49ers facility, after a single-vehicle accident in which his pickup truck collided with a tree. He was arrested for suspicion of DUI and marijuana possession. This came after he was arrested in Miami in January 2012 on suspicion of DUI, stabbed during a party at his house in June 2012 and sued by a man who claimed he was shot at that party — during which Smith and ex-49ers teammate Delanie Walker allegedly fired gunshots to break up a party where they’d charged $10 admission and $5 a drink. At those prices, I wouldn’t want to leave the party, either.
The 49ers are having enough trouble this season to tolerate Smith’s continuing troubles. Their 27-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts and Andrew Luck, who returned to the Bay Area to beat the suddenly struggling and ineffective Colin Kaepernick, had the feel of a demoralized team heading south; running back Frank Gore had words with Harbaugh, part of the team’s continuing poor offensive performance. Smith will miss Thursday’s game at St. Louis and seek treatment. “First off, I wanted to apologize to the team, the organization, my family and everybody I let down,” Smith said after the loss “I also want to let it be known that this is a problem and it’s something that I will get fixed, and that I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that this never happens again. I also wanted to let everybody know that once again I’m sorry.”
Sorry won’t do when so much is at stake, when the 49ers were five yards from a Super Bowl championship in February and want the big trophy. Harbaugh said last week that Smith needs help yet chose to play him Sunday, which drew criticism. Harbaugh, who was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in 2005 and pleased guilty to a misdemeanor, has chosen to handle the Smith case with tough love. “I’ve brought that up with my players a few times,” he told Stanford Magazine, per Sports Illustrated. “I think that’s made me a better counselor than I was before. The way I coached guys before that happened it was like, `Why can’t you get it?’ Why can’t you get it right?’ You did this wrong, now fix it!’ I was so much more of a perfectionist, to a fault. But I gained some understanding. In many ways it made me a better person, a better coach, a better counselor.”
Jed York, the 49ers CEO, explained why the team let Smith play Sunday. According to ESPN, he was allowed only because the league’s personal conduct policy requires the case go through its legal course. Eventually, Smith also will be suspended by the league. “Our opinion is if you’re sitting someone down and paying them to sit down when they’re going to seek treatment in the future, we didn’t feel like that was an appropriate punishment,” York said of a Sunday sit-down. “We’re not trying to circumvent what the NFL will do. This is about making sure that Aldon has the opportunity to work on something, to get better, and he knows that he has our support and hopefully he has everybody’s support in something that is going to be very difficult.
“I think Aldon is going to take steps on his own. We’re not worried about that. … “It was disappointing, but we support him, and knowing that what he wants to do is not a one-day fix, it’s a long-term fix for Aldon. Aldon is willing to fight for himself and try to make this right, and I will see it through, and I will support him. I will take any shots that anybody wants to direct at the organization. They can direct at me, and I will support Aldon as long as he is willing to work at this and fight to get better.”
Meanwhile, the team suffers. Said veteran tight end Vernon Davis to the Bay Area media: “Some guys listen, some guys don’t. You can take the horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink. It’s all about doing the right thing. I’m sure he’ll come around. It’s just a matter of time. Hopefully, he’ll learn from this situation that he got himself into, and maybe it will come out positive instead of negative.”
Von Miller and Aldon Smith needed only two seasons to amass impressive NFL numbers: Miller has 31.5 sacks in 34 games; Smith has 39 in 40 games. Taylor, in 199 career games, had 139 sacks. In his documentary, L.T. says he’s shocked that he stayed alive long enough in his drug-and-alcohol morass to play that long and reach the Hall of Fame. Last year in New York, he pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct and patronizing a 16-year-old prostitute.
In July, his 31-year-old son, Lawrence Taylor Jr., was arrested in Georgia on felony charges of statutory rape, aggravated child molestation and sodomy. Last we saw L.T. Jr. was on Canton induction day in 1999, when he presented his father. “If I could pick anybody to be my father, I would pick Lawrence Taylor every time,” he said in his speech.
The L.T. story should be a harsh lesson for all football players — all of us on Earth, really. But knowing about it is one thing; heeding it is another. The NFL’s conduct policy, I’m afraid, is being trampled over by these two sackers like so many prone quarterbacks.