Jonny Jolly is one of the few bright spots in the NFL of a player who was suspended from the league but managed to make a comeback; in 2008 Jolly was arrested for selling codeine, a control opiate intended to be used typically as a cough suppressant but in this case was being used to make purple drank, a recreational drug. Jolly was suspended indefinitely and was caught again for attempting to sell codeine again in 2011 and was subsequently sentenced and sent to jail, where he was granted an early release with shock probation.
For most players, no matter how talented, the story ends here. Teams, rightfully wary of having to deal with more negative press and a out of shape, older player who hasn’t been practicing for years would likely have just released the player and gone about their business. However the Packers gave Jolly a shot and were rewarded with a very good season in 2013; while Jolly was never a great player at any point in his career, he definitely was a good player and while he might never play again after suffering a neck injury, at least he can exit the game knowing that he didn’t waste his opportunity.
Throughout all of this, Aaron Rodgers offered up an interesting take; yes Jolly had screwed up, but was suspending and barring him from the Packers organization really the best course of action?
“I think the commissioner’s done a great job of cleaning up some of the stuff in the league. That said, if you take a guy away from his support system … I don’t think that’s helping.” – Aaron Rodgers on Johnny Jolly, ESPN Milwaukee
Rodgers isn’t alone in this mentality either.
“It’s a big blow to us. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t, it’s not a big blow. But the thing is, we have to rally around him. I know all the things people say — ‘he should be cut, he should be this’ — he shouldn’t. He’s a 23-year-old kid. He made some mistakes. A lot of people’s 20-year-old sons make mistakes. We have to help him, and that’s the bottom line. We have to help him collectively. It’s not going be one person that helps him, it’s not going to be two people that help him. I’m talking about from the front office, the coaching staff, the players and his whole family. We have to help him not only for football purposes, but for life purposes to get his life in order.” – Donte Whitner on Josh Gordon, SirusXM NFL Radio
Imagine this from the perspective of a professional football player; football is of course their passion but it is also a way of life that they’ve been living since high school or earlier. Getting to practice on time; meeting with your position group, doing film study, working out, running drills; each of these events and many more like them is normal and expected. Now suddenly take that away, what do you do with yourself?
Vince Lombardi famously trained under Army head coach Red Blaik, who instilled a military pedagogy into his football team that many in the NFL still use today. And just like soldiers having difficulty leaving the regimented military lifestyle while in service to the more random collection of events called a civilian life, NFL players also experience the same issue; many fall into drug habits and crime after their playing careers are over simply because football is all they’ve been doing up to that point and without that they don’t know what to do with themselves.
While suspending a player is often times the right thing to do, I think completely barring a player from interacting with his football organization i.e. support is not the right thing. What does the NFL gain by essentially cutting off all ties with a player at a time when they probably need stability and the support the most? Perhaps a better solution would be for suspended players to not receive a paycheck nor be allowed onto the football field or training room, but they could be allowed by the team to to attend position group meetings, interact with coaches and other players and maybe even be allowed to be on the sidelines for home games (just to remind them what they are missing out on). Furthermore, if that player was injured while playing for a football team, that player should be allowed to recover and rehabilitate his body under the supervision of team trainers and doctors. If the player only gets worse then the team should have the option to bar a player from the facility if they deem it the only course of action left. Under this system the player doesn’t gain any advantage for being suspended but also doesn’t have the rug completely yanked from under his feet.
Would Jolly have avoided his second arrest if he were allowed to interact with the Packers, his support staff? Would being able to talk to team leaders like Aaron Rodgers, Charles Woodson and veterans like Ryan Pickett help him stay sober and in control? Would Mike McCarthy and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac have given Jolly someone he trusts to help him? Maybe yes, maybe no, but in either case it would have been a better than giving Jolly and players like him no option at all.
In the end, the NFL has to realize that its players are very vulnerable; being a professional football player often means becoming an overnight star with a sudden influx of money in their pockets. Having a suspension system that is a little more complex than “cold turkey” would benefit both teams and players alike; players obviously retain their support structure while teams get another chance to protect their investment. The NFL has to realize that while the “cold turkey” approach may work for some individuals, in most cases it doesn’t (just look how many smokers are still trying to quit). Perhaps Vince Lombardi said it best:
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.