Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay checked himself into rehab Wednesday, a few days after police discovered controlled substances in his car while arresting him for driving under the influence. According to Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, the arrest didn’t come as a surprise to Colts insiders, who long knew about Irsay’s ongoing battle with drug addiction (he admitted to using prescription painkillers in 2002).
After news of the arrest came down, the sports press universally wondered out loud how NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would handle the prospect of disciplining an owner who seems in clear violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. Goodell has been particularly heavy-handed in punishing players who have committed similar offenses, but it’s no secret that his allegiances lie with the owners, who happen to pay his salary.
It’s encouraging, therefore, that an NFL spokesman told the Indianapolis Star that Irsay's status as an owner would not exempt him from the same code of conduct applied to the players. In keeping with previous off-the-field infractions, Irsay is likely to receive a hefty fine and suspension without costing the team any draft picks. Under the same pressure to appear fair and objective, the Hamilton County officials have made similar statements that Irsay would not receive preferential treatment as the prosecutor mulls whether to bring charges against him. The Colts owner is facing four Class D felonies for possession of Schedule IV substances, each of which carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. If convicted, Irsay is unlikely to spend any time in jail -- not because of his wealth and power, but because he has no prior criminal history.
While Irsay might not be receiving special treatment from the league or law enforcement, however, there has been a noticeable difference in the way he’s been received in the court of public opinion. The reaction to his arrest has been largely sympathetic, with pieces like Kravitz’s giving but an ancillary nod to the very real, very dangerous possibilities had he hit someone with his car. For the most part, people have responded with an outpouring of support and good wishes for Irsay to simply get the help he needs to recover.
By all accounts Irsay is a pleasant guy and nobody should wish him ill. But I wonder where these good tidings go when it’s not a white, billionaire owner getting arrested with illegal substances, but a black player who plays into the stereotype of what our society thinks a drug addict actually looks like. When Dwayne Bowe was arrested for speeding and marijuana possession in November, several fans got all self-righteous after the Kansas City Chiefs decided not to bench him, tweeting about morals and calling him a thug. (Won’t somebody please think of the children?) Percy Harvin was dropped from several teams’ draft rosters after testing positive for marijuana during the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine. Nobody wished him a speedy recovery from the debilitating migraines for which he was self-medicating. And don’t even get me started on the vilification of Ricky Williams.
In those and other cases, the public was quick to condemn the players for poor judgment and implied a cultural affinity for street drugs. While Irsay’s problem is rightfully being treated as an addiction issue -- a psychological problem -- a player getting arrested for pot is usually viewed as a behavioral issue, and accordingly given a much shorter leash. Behavioral or psychological, both cases involve people whose drug use is at least partly because of the simple confluence of having enormous amounts of disposable income and free time. But because Irsay doesn’t fit into the false narrative of urban drug addiction -- his substance of choice is prescribed by doctors, not packaged in a basement -- he’s viewed with much more sympathy. The racial gap is impossible to ignore in the real world, too: Higher percentages of whites have used marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens, pain killers and stimulants, yet blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for drug possession.
This is slowly starting to change as marijuana legalization shifts the drug increasingly into the mainstream, but until that happens football players smoking pot will continue to be dismissed as thugs and nonviolent black men will continue to fill our overcrowded prisons.
I do hope Jim Irsay gets the help he needs, and that he’s back at the helm of his team as soon as his health and the NFL will allow. I just wish people had felt the same about Ricky Williams’ recovery.
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