Off-the-field issues present challenges for athletes, coaches and their teams

High school, college, and professional teams take an inconsistent approach in dealing with athletes who have off-the-field and off-the-court struggles. That isn’t surprising, considering the complexity of some situations that arise.

Domestic violence and related incidents rank among the NFL’s biggest off-the-field problems. The only crime category with a larger number of arrests involving NFL players is DUI. Still, the rate is lower than the national average for men of similar age, according to one report.

Teams are forced to deal with societal issues whether they’re prepared or not, and not all cases are black and white.

The perception of fans is that the more talented the athlete, the longer the rope or more chances the athlete is given to remain on the team.

The Kansas City Chiefs released Kareem Hunt, one of their best players last season, after a video surfaced showing him pushing and kicking a woman at a Cleveland hotel in February 2018.

Hunt was picked up by the Cleveland Browns this year, but first he has to serve an eight-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Hunt’s suspension also stems from a physical altercation at an Ohio resort in June, when he allegedly punched a man, although no charges were filed, and Hunt was not arrested.

Releasing Hunt was generally applauded by the media and the public. Of course, Hunt was quickly picked up by another team willing to take its chances on winning a few more games in exchange for a future public relations fallout should Hunt stumble again.

In April, an audio recording surfaced of Kansas City wide receiver Tyreek Hill threatening and arguing with his fiancée Crystal Espinal about allegations he broke their son’s arm. It surprised many that the NFL announced Hill would not be disciplined.

The NFL said there was insufficient evidence to punish Hill and the Chiefs issued a statement saying, “We are glad to welcome Tyreek back to the team.”

The NFL, and for that matter, most colleges and professional teams, have no answer for knowing how to handle off-the-field issues.

It’s a troubling predicament having to weigh public backlash against potential success on the field.

An article in The Wall Street Journal said: “In the past year alone, the Chiefs have flirted with all sides of this equation: They released Hunt; traded for Frank Clark, a star defensive end with past domestic violence allegations; and waited out Hill.

“Just as the Browns snapped up Hunt, another team likely would have done the same if Kansas City had released Hill.

“It means that the team that stands up for some moral code is the team that loses on the field,” said Jodi Balsam, a former lawyer with the NFL and current law professor. “Not only do the other teams get this amazing talent, they also get it at a bargain basement price.”

Of course, the hope is that troubled athletes learn from their past mistakes. Sometimes they do. Often they don’t.

A Montana basketball coach shared three main principles with The Leader’s Institute for dealing with a difficult player.

1. Absolutely no one is irreplaceable.

2. Make decisions based on what is best for the team.

3. Next, make decisions based on what is best for the individual.

These guiding principles won’t guarantee success in dealing with difficult players and people. “However, you will be able to deal with each situation effectively as it arises and still maintain your status as a fair, honest, and engaged leader of your team,” said the coach.

To be fair, it’s worth noting that there are many athletes who live exemplary lives, but they don’t make the headlines for that.