Denver Broncos' DUI incidents carry lessons for rest of league

Denver Broncos president Joe Ellis hit "send" on an email Monday the likes of which plenty of other executives have surely had to distribute.

Maybe they've stemmed from a couple of incidents around holiday parties for the insurance company boss, or a few things that went down over Memorial Day weekend for the hedge-fund manager, or some embarrassing episode at a convention for the sales team.

The difference here, in the case of the missive sent by Ellis, is twofold. First, because of the high-profile nature of the team and the league in which it plays, Ellis can't quietly discipline his employees, make an example for everyone else, and move on. And second, no matter how he decided to take action -- in this case, it meant suspending director of pro personnel Tom Heckert for a month and director of player Matt Russell indefinitely after their arrests for driving under the influence -- there was going to be a segment of his employees watching closely for double standards.

To be sure, the past few days have been tricky for the Broncos to navigate. But when observers from other teams look at what Denver, and the league as a whole, went through as a result of the high-profile nature of the incidents, there is indeed something to be gained.

"We spent so much time on player development, in providing them with the resources and avenues to deal with their problems, that maybe sometimes we neglect how difficult coaches' and scouts' lives can be," said one NFC club exec. "They have all the stress, the hours the players face, sometimes more so, and in some cases without the same level of pay. I don't really know that we spend enough time making sure our employees and peers are OK.

"Hopefully, this makes the league and teams remember that the most important people are the people in our own buildings. What happened to the Broncos could happen to anyone. I hope it's a wakeup call."

In most cases, the resources that are available to players are also there for the non-players working within a club. Russell and Heckert will go through an evaluation and get treatment as needed, as any player would, and the opportunities for education that players get are there. Most of the programs -- many clubs run a SafeRides-like program -- that are there for the guys who perform between the lines are there for those outside of them, too.

The question then becomes about exposure, and whether or not the guys directing the players on what to do and what not to do need to be led by the hand to learn the lessons they're trying to teach.

And the argument is out there -- same as the one that these guys should be held to a higher standard -- that the standard itself should be a matter of common sense, and not one that needs to be written in a memo.

"Regardless of the hours we work, the job descriptions we have, you're not omitted from personal responsibility," said an AFC personnel executive. "Yes, it's a stress-related job, but there are a lot of stress-related jobs out there. This brought the conversation to the forefront, and it needs to be addressed, that we're held to the same standards as the players. You do lose sight of that to a degree, as often as we might remind the players."

There's no doubt that players across the league, including the ones who share a workplace with Heckert and Russell, were waiting to see how an NFL that many of them view as overbearing would act in this case. In the end, the league let the Broncos take the lead, and found the club's sanctions against John Elway's top two personnel lieutenants to be satisfactory.

The events of the past few weeks also won't quell a widespread perception that the Denver guys are work hard/play hard types, something that Elway told the Denver Post he sees as "far-fetched", even in the wake of the DUIs. The truth is, even if Elway likes to have a good time and has surrounded himself with others who do, too, the Broncos aren't exactly outliers, either in the league or the corporate world, in that department, and offering criticism there could make hypocrites of a lot of people.

And it'd also be hard to say that the club didn't hold Russell and Heckert to a higher standard than players. Under the league's drug policy, in the case of a first-time DUI for a player, as long as it's not aggravated, the maximum allowable penalty is two game checks up to $50,000. Given the high blood-alcohol content that the Broncos personnel men had at the time of their arrests, one could argue that a player in their shoes would be punished beyond that standard, but it's hard to imagine the penalties would approach what Denver levied.

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Still, the organization will take a hit, not because of the profiles of the individuals, but because now the club's name is attached to the series of events.

"I've been around it, and it's no different than any other industry. A construction worker gets off, and what does he go and do? Heads to happy hour for a beer," said an AFC club exec. "What people don't realize here, and this is part of the takeaway, is that you're in the public light. Even if the public doesn't know your name, they know the team and identify the team with this. So you are a public figure."

Outside of that, what happened in Colorado doesn't make the Broncos or the NFL much different from the rest of America. No one condones what went down. Likewise, while it might be a more common issue across society than it should be, there are few who wouldn't agree it's a problem.

So what happens next is important. In some cases, it's giving the same reminder to those in positions of power that's given to players. In others, maybe it's just checking in on employees and seeing how they're doing.

"It's a missed opportunity if teams don't use this as a teaching point," said the NFC exec. "The league has spent an enormous amount of time on drunk driving, and working with MADD. And what we need to realize is that it's not just the players that need to be addressed here -- it's everybody at the team, from the GM on down to the ticket sellers. We have extraordinary resources to help. There's no excuse for us not to use them."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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