Inside Out  

 

For players, Friday is the most dangerous night in the NFL

Akbar Gbajabiamila, an analyst on NFL Fantasy Live, played defensive end for three NFL teams from 2003 to 2007. In his weekly "Inside Out" column, he offers a player's perspective on topical events around the league.

Next to Sunday, Friday is the most anticipated day of the week for players during the season. It's also the most dangerous night in the NFL.

Unfortunately, we saw more evidence of that last week, when Josh Brent, the Dallas Cowboys' third-year defensive lineman, was charged with intoxication manslaughter in a single-car crash that took the life of his friend and teammate, Jerry Brown Jr. Brent's blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit.

That incident came one week after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher was found by police sleeping in a car outside a gated apartment complex in the early morning hours of Saturday. Some hours later, Belcher murdered his live-in girlfriend, then took his own life.

These latest tragedies have many people asking, "How could this happen?" Those who have played in the NFL and understand what transpires on Friday nights might be asking a different question: "Why doesn't this happen more often?"

As a player, I loved Fridays. It's the week's lightest day of practice, typically in shells (limited padding). And once that last whistle blows, your day is done. A combine-like sprint ensues to the locker room, where the guys are planning the rest of the day -- to hit up the barbershop, get the car detailed and where to meet and party that night. Some are on the next flight out of town, destined for the closest action city.

It's understandable. After a long week that includes meetings, film study, home study, weight training and intense practice, players are looking to jump off the conveyer belt and unwind, free from the control of their respective organizations.

When I played in Oakland, we would party in one of two locations: the city (San Francisco) or Los Angeles. When it was L.A., we had the routine down to a science. After practice was done at noon, we were on a flight at 1:55 p.m. Once we touched down in Los Angeles, it was time to run the city and "get it in."

After 18 hours of all-night fun, it was time to depart on the first flight out of LAX at 7:15 a.m., arriving back in Oakland at 8:30 a.m. For away games, we departed the team facility at 9:30 a.m. to catch another flight to the opposing team's city.

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Seems risky, right? It is.

But as elite football players, we are thrill-seekers addicted to adrenaline. And what activity can simulate the "high" that is caused by a fight-or-flight response from a risky occupation like football? How about drinking?

It's a staple of Friday nights in the NFL. Guys are in the clubs buying top-shelf liquor in VIP booths. It's the NFL players' "weekend," a time to have some fun sipping on your drink of choice. Many players view this as the only time they can go out without worrying about the consequences of a physical performance the next day.

But suddenly, you are faced with the decision to end the night and head home. Sadly, this is where Friday nights become dangerous. The same $90,000 car you got detailed to show off in the valet line at the club ends up being the engine to disaster. Driving a vehicle while impaired is illegal and irresponsible.

For many NFL players, there is a disconnect to that responsibility. Sunday warriors are conditioned to operate under impaired conditions, creating a false sense of perception in life outside the stadium.

For example, in the San Francisco 49ersWeek 10 game against the St. Louis Rams, quarterback Alex Smith took a hellacious hit that concussed him. He continued to play with no regard to personal safety, throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass while playing with blurred vision. He was eventually diagnosed with a concussion. Performing under vulnerable circumstances is a frequent occurrence for every player in the NFL.

Athletes are trained to never concede defeat on the field, and that carries over in their personal lives. In a devious way, admitting to being drunk is acknowledging that you have been defeated. It's admitting a weakness. That's hard to digest for a player. In an inebriated state, it's difficult to rewire a player's DNA to shut down the macho man, when in normal conditions admission to impairment could mean losing your job. Alex Smith learned that the hard way.

The NFL Players Association employs an independent safe-ride program for all its players. The program provides two services: pre-arranged transportation and an emergency response for intoxicated players with access to a vehicle. This service protects the anonymity of players, so teams aren't alerted when one of their players uses it.

Some teams have their own safe-ride programs. The Cincinnati Bengals, for example, have a company that provides two drivers when a player calls -- one to drive the player home, and the other to follow in the player's vehicle.

This seems like an easy solution, but players want to remove themselves from the watchful eyes of their organization. And if teams can perform background checks on players and their family members prior to the draft, why shouldn't there be reasonable suspicion that the same could happen while they are playing in the NFL.

If a player is drunk at a strip club at 3 a.m., he doesn't want services provided under the NFL umbrella because the fear is that the team will leverage it against him when it comes to renegotiating a new contract, or question the player's ability to perform and give the opportunity to the next man up.

The tragedies of the last couple weeks have placed the spotlight back on Friday nights in the NFL. It's re-igniting discussions around safety and good decisions. That can only be a good thing.

Follow Akbar Gbajabiamila on Twitter @Akbar_Gbaja

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