Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Car Keys: An Oppressive Lions Summer

>> 7.02.2012


The blazing heat of the summer sun’s rays drill through me; the sweltering blanket of humidity smothers everything. Scorched grass crunches underfoot as I mop sweat off my brow with sweat from my arm. The air is pregnant with steamy moisture while plants lay dead from lack of water. Everywhere, there is radiant heat. Everywhere, there is blinding light.

Everywhere but the blue bonfire.

With a grunt, I drop the handles of the wheelbarrow I rolled here. Shielding my eyes with my hand, I take stock: a decent-sized flame flickers languidly on the ashes of what was recently a towering pillar of fire. A few empty mugs lay empty on the ground, along with party cups and paper plates and somebody’s Lions snapback. The rack of wood is almost bare; one keg is leaking cider.

I sigh. Time to get to work.

As Tom Leyden of WXYZ first reported, Aaron Berry was arrested on suspicion of DUI, amongst other charges. That makes for Detroit Lions arrests this offseason, by far the highest total in the NFL and so now I guess they are officially the New Bengals, a morally bankrupt group of thugs drunkenly rampaging across America, the example set from the team president on down.

Everything I know about the NFL and human behavior tells me this can’t be a systemic thing. The Lions aren’t coaching their players to go out and smoke weed and drive drunk and escape from the cops. The Lions, an organization which had the fewest arrests in the NFL from 2000-2011, didn’t suddenly become a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Let’s look at the  Vikings’ Love Boat incident. Certain Vikings players had been annually organizing evenings of debauchery on private boats. It culminated in seventeen players flying in women of leisure from around the country and doing all sorts of ridiculous things with them during a booze-soaked rager, in full view of horrified boat staff and crew.

That, clearly, was a team thing. That was a systemic problem. That was a culture of lawlessness and criminality. That, also, was a winning team with a perennial Top Ten offense during their 2005 bye week—which magnifies both the deviousness of the behavior and the total and complete lack of effect it had on their job.

The Lions’ arrests are individual incidents. Mikel Leshoure, with friends in southwest Michigan. Nick Fairley, back home in Alabama. Aaron Berry, after participating in Lesean McCoy's charity softball game. There’s absolutely no connection between any of these player’s bad decisions—except who signs their paychecks.

It's time for some talking points. MGoBlog super-ego discussion mode, engage:

So what, are you saying this is okay?

Absolutely not. These young men have made some awful decisions that have put their own lives at risk in a metaphorical way, and others’ lives at risk in a literal way. It has to stop, and in fact it had to stop several incidents ago. It is UNACCEPTABLE in the grand tradition of being angry on the Internet.

So what should the Lions do to stop it?

There's nothing they can do to stop it. They can send them to counseling or training, read everyone on the roster the riot act, punish the guilty with fines and/or suspensions, cut the offenders off the team or any combination of the above. But as Terry Foster did a brilliant job of explaining, the Lions can’t just cut someone for getting a DUI; that sets a precedent they can’t possibly uphold.

Foster’s plan of aggressive testimonials (possibly combined with the NFLPA’s ride-share service) might be the most effective option, but none of that will guarantee any of the Lions’ young players won’t make a mistake.

Are the Lions the new Bengals?

No, the Lions aren't the new Bengals. The Bengals intentionally gambled on character and injury risks because they refused to shell out money for full-time scouts. They drafted on name recognition, and kept up with this strategy despite it repeatedly biting them in the butt.

The Lions' brass haven’t been seeking out character risks, but they may have had overinflated confidence in their locker-room culture. As I wrote for Bleacher Report, the Lions’ current leadership has made a habit of swinging for the fences on picks, drafting guys with the most talent and potential over mediocre guys with higher floors.

Going forward, they’re going to have to be more careful about drafting guys with these kind of issues in their background, but that’s about it.

So are the Lions going to suck now?

No, absolutely not.

Many have jabbed at the organization for the leadership on drinking and driving coming from the top—but they’re getting it exactly backwards. Tom Lewand was fantastic at his job before he got pulled over after a golf outing, and is still fantastic at his job.

If you’ve ever been to a golf outing, or involved in corporate golf in any way, knows they often end with a boozy parade of people who are really good at their jobs suckin’ it up and driving home. As I tweeted on the day of Berry’s arrest, how many sales managers are going to drive from Happy Hour to the golf club, and on the way call into the Huge Show and rant about the “thugs” now wearing Honolulu Blue?

No, no, clearly the talking heads at ESPN have it right: the Lions are going to miss the playoffs because DUIs, and the Bears are going in their stead because they signed Brandon Marshall, who has a rap sheet three iPads long but whatever. Obviously, the general ne’er-do-well-ness of Mikel Leshoure riding dirty in the back seat will directly correlate with being less good at football, while Marshall having played with Cutler before means they’re sure to make the playoffs, despite Marshall being a human time bomb back then, too.

Super-ego mode, disengage.

To reiterate: This is not okay. Lions players have to stop breaking the law. But what happens with these players in their personal lives from this point forward is not something we can, or should, have control over. Nothing will come of us proclaiming or declaring anything. They’ll be watched, they’ll be helped, they may be punished, and they may get treatment. Meanwhile, they’ll to do their jobs as best they can.

Ultimately, that’s how this story ends: with football. Once football starts, we’ll stop paying attention to these young men and the mistakes they’re making. We could sit around and blow a lot of hot air about whether or not football is really important, and how athletes are ceaselessly worshipped and given carte blanche, and how awful it is that these kids will get to go right on plying their trade like nothing happened.

But the only reason we’re talking about the arrests is because of football: the unending amount of attention we pay to it, and the huge pedestal we put it on. Nick Fairley getting arrested is the subject of national sport punditry and bloviating for a solid week, not because people care about Nick Fairley, gifted youth on a rocky path to community pillardom—or even the theoretical victims he’s lucky don’t exist—but because it might, or might not, affect the Detroit Lions.

Let's take it one step further: the reason the Lions’ arrests have been the subject of SO MUCH hot air and spilled in and battered keyboards is because we have to talk about football all the time, and if Lions DUIs is the only thing happening then we’ll just talk Lions DUIs until the next thing happens (in this case, it was the release of the Freeh report on the Penn State horrificness).

This all feeds off a gross, mucky instinct that sports fans (and, I fear, everyone) has: the desire to BE ANGRY all the time, to get up on a soapbox and rant and rave about how everyone else is doing it wrong and people these days have no humanity left and everything’s going to hell in a handbasket all the time. It’s a competitive RAGEFEST 24x7x365 to see who can be the first to be most angry and the most defiant and the most condemnificating. Every morsel of news gets thrown in the great whirling, threshing maw and it gets shredded and re-shredded and pulverised over and over and over until Deadspin or ESPN or whoever throws in the next hunk of meat.

I don't understand what we get out of this, except maybe the temporary emotional boost of feeling like we are RIGHT, in contrast to their WRONG. But as Michael Schottey drove home in a criminally underread piece, many of us have an awful lot of almost-skeletons in our closet on this issue, and we should stop and think about that before we throw our next beloved sports idol into the Rage Combine.

Meanwhile, I have to take my own advice. I’ve got a bunch of mugs to wash, trash to pick up, and cider to brew, and I’ve barely started chopping this wood.

I'm off to channel this energy into something productive: my axe.

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