THE BLOG
12/09/2012 12:50 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2013

Why Can't the NFL Stop Its Players From Driving Drunk?

Can we stop National Football League players from continuing to drive drunk and killing people?

I ask this question in light of the news that Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent has been arrested for intoxication manslaughter after allegedly causing the tragic death of his teammate and friend Jerry Brown. According to the police in Irving, Texas, where the crash occurred on Saturday morning, Brent, the driver, had been speeding before the vehicle hit a curb and flipped over. Brent was treated for minor injuries. Brown, the passenger, was killed.

As the author of a book on the history of drunk driving in the United States, I must, unfortunately, answer "no" to this question, at least for now. Drunk driving is both one of the most deadly and one of the most preventable things that Americans do. Thanks to the work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID) and other organizations, annual deaths due to drunk driving have dropped from 25,000 in 1980 to roughly 11,000 now. But we still tolerate this criminal act far too much.

The successful fight against drunk driving has come from many factors, including tougher laws, quicker punishments and publicity campaigns such as "Drink Responsibly" and "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk." We have also built on the experiences of countries such as Sweden and Australia and promoted the use of designated drivers.

It is reasonable to speculate that these efforts have lowered the rates of drunk driving among NFL players and, for that matter, all professional athletes. But there is still a culture of drinking and driving among NFL players. As Dan Wetzel reported on Yahoo, drunk driving is the league's biggest legal issue. A study by the San Diego Union-Tribune found that 112 of the 385 NFL player arrests between 2000 and 2008 involved drunk driving. In 2009, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donté Stallworth, who had been drinking at a hotel bar in Florida, struck and killed a pedestrian.

The problem is that there are limits to moral and legal deterrents. Brent himself should have known better than anyone. While in college in 2009, he pleaded guilty to DUI to DUI and was sentenced to 60 days in jail, two years of probation, 200 hours of community service and a fine of about $2,000. But the sad fact is that trying to force people to behave in a certain way does not always work. In what may be the most ironic aspect of this whole tragedy, the national headquarters of MADD are located in Irving, Texas, where the crash occurred.

There are things that the NFL could do. For example, the league could mandate that all of their players install ignition interlocks, essentially breathalyzers, in their cars. The driver must blow into these devices and be sober in order for the car to start. The NFL could mandate that players use taxis or other designated driving services when they go out at night or risk suspension and loss of their salaries. Or, more provocatively, the NFL could ban advertisements of beer and other alcohol products in stadiums.

These ideas, however, are pie in the sky. It is highly unlikely that NFL owners want to act as
policemen, monitoring the behaviors of their players. Indeed, America's strong libertarian traditions, less pronounced in other countries, have always hindered more aggressive prevention of drunk driving. And alcohol, especially beer, is intimately related to football. Not only do sales of these products and related advertising lead to considerable income for teams, but football fans love to drink, whether when tailgating or inside the stadium. Banning beer sales late in the game probably prevents some drunk driving, but not much.

However, there is a new technology on the horizon that may help not only NFL players but all of us to not drive drunk. Within several years, it may be possible for automobile companies to install infrared technology in all cars that can sense blood alcohol when a driver puts his or her hands on the wheel. If you have been drinking, the car won't start. Libertarians will hate this, but I propose that saving thousands of lives annually should trump their arguments.

For now, we can hope that the death of Jerry Brown, and the likely prison sentence for Jason Brent, serves as yet another wake-up call for other NFL players who believe that drunk driving crashes only happen to other people. They are wrong. Dead wrong.