It used to be that a few National Football League players were known as after-hours carousers who would occasionally and embarrassingly be seen with a woman other than their wives or even get into a scuffle in a nightclub.
Those were the kinds of personnel problems the league had to deal with in days gone by.
Since then, drugs have become the No. 1 disciplinary issue for teams and the league. Dealing with it has been tricky, but, with the cooperation and collaboration of the NFL Players Association, the lid has stayed on the soup, though sometimes with difficulty.
These days, players are linked to other varieties of mayhem, including murders. Since the last Super Bowl, 30 NFL players have been arrested, charged with one infraction or another, up to and including murder.
League Commissioner Roger Goodell and his staff have their hands full trying to retain a positive image for a league seemingly out of control.
Everyone by now knows that star New England tight end Aaron Hernandez is in jail, charged with murder in the execution-style death of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd. Hernandez is being held without bail and has pleaded not guilty.
Things look bleak for Hernandez, who may wind up facing charges in still another murder case.
But here’s where it gets tricky for the league: Over the past few days, photographs have shown up on the Internet showing two young NFL stars, twins Maurkice and Mike Pouncey of the Steelers and Dolphins, respectively, wearing hats bearing the inscription, “Free Hernandez.”
The two were teammates of Hernandez at the University of Florida. Mike roomed with him.
So what does Goodell do about that? Hernandez has already been disenfranchised — cut from the Patriots and estranged from the league, which considers him an utter disgrace.
The Pounceys openly showing support is clearly at odds with the league’s stance. But can it order them not to express their support for an old friend, even if it flies in the face of the NFL’s response to matters?
Maurkice — the more accomplished of the twins on the field so far — has already issued a statement apologizing. Reports said each team planned to address the issue with its player. Obviously, it would hope the players would show some contrition.
But can it demand it? And does it want to lose a player of their caliber?
Players surely have First Amendment rights. But when those rights collide with the image of their employers, new issues emerge.
Our advice to the league would be to ask for contrition but not to demand it.
Being in step with the NFL would be nice. But being in step with America is far more important.