By now, you’ve probably heard the story regarding Colts’ owner Jim Irsay’s arrest on Sunday night on charges of drug possession and driving under the influence. Irsay has since checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic and hopes to get clean much in the same way he did in 2002 when prescription painkillers took over his life.
Some of you might wonder how a problem this serious was able to fly under the hyper-maniacal feed that is the NFL news cycle. I personally believe that it has been able to do so due to two specific points:
1) Visibility of said celebrity
2) Our country’s attitude towards alcohol versus drug addiction
These two factors played a huge role in how Irsay’s problem became this severe.
Point One: First let’s discuss visibility. Believe it or not, I am going to take the angle that Irsay was not as visible as some other famous people who have had the same problems. While at first glance that might seem insane since he is an NFL owner, hear me out for a second…
Actors and musicians are probably highest on the recognizability scale of the alcoholism and drug addiction totem pole. They’re the most visible because they have to show up at award shows and make the most public appearances out of anyone I’m about to mention. It’s difficult for them to hide their problems because people that work for the E! Entertainment are constantly shoving microphones and tape recorders in their faces. To complicate matters, usually they aren’t very smart about how they choose to have a good time. A perfect example of someone who seems to be stuck within this cycle is Lindsay Lohan. She’d have about half of her shit together if she actually stayed home, but since she likes to blackout in public – now we all know about it.
On the second level are athletes. While athletes are in the public eye a great deal with the popularity of strip clubs, cell phone cameras, and strip clubs that are dumb enough to let their patrons use cell phone cameras, for the most part they can have a problem and hide it. They have so many outs to use if they are struggling from substance abuse, just so long as they don’t end up driving into a tree. The athlete of today is not very public-relations savvy. Most of them are very unforgiving to the media when you consider that they get to play sports for a living. The shot you’re used to seeing when it comes to athletes in transport is that of a guy with his headphones on walking out to his SUV with tinted windows, hoping for dear life that some local reporter doesn’t interrupt him from listening to the new Lil’ Wayne record or ask him a difficult question. These are usually pressing questions like “How was practice?” and “How’s the family?”, so as you can see – a total invasion of their privacy. So even if there are rumors swirling about their substance use or abuse, they can get out of it by simply making that walk and ignoring the reporters.
On the third level of the aforementioned recognizability scale of the alcoholism and drug addiction totem pole is the coaches, owners, GMs, and people in the front office of professional sports teams. Obviously, there are different levels within this level itself and you’ll never know if any member of the marketing department is struggling with these problems. Although the owners such as Mr. Irsay have millions and millions of dollars, I’ll revert back to the old adage about how referees don’t sell jerseys here. A Malcolm Glazer halloween costume is not ever going to fly off of the shelves in large numbers. (Editor’s note: You’ll probably notice that I didn’t capitalize the word halloween, and that I didn’t do it again right there. That’s because it’s a stupid holiday that no one over the age of ten should ever participate in. I will take no phone calls on this matter, I’m busy…) While you have likely heard Jim Irsay’s name numerous times in the past, your ability to identify him in an Indianapolis bar after a couple bloody marys isn’t nearly as impressive as you’d like me to believe. In the entertainment industry I would equate this to producers, directors, and behind the scenes people that you wouldn’t recognize because they will never be on the cover of People magazine.
Since Mr. Irsay is in that third category, it’s been relatively easy for him to get away with having the dependency issues that he currently has. Most of his contact with the press is in the form of releases, and the one or two times a month he does have to speak to the media, it’s usually very brief. This means if he needs to take the edge off before an interview, he simply pops a Xanax and all is well. Mentally the oral fixation of taking the drug tells him that everything is alright, and by the time the interview is over the physical effects have began to kick in. That’s the way an addict’s mind works, and eventually they develop several defense mechanisms that allow them to schedule their use around the tasks in their day to day lives.
A few years back, a video leaked of a very intoxicated Jerry Jones at a Fort Worth bar talking to some Cowboys fans about their team. While most of us had suspected that as a rich Texas businessman, Jerry enjoyed a bit of the happy sauce from time to time and may have toed the line when it comes to having a problem with it. But since he’s rich, he is surrounded by a lot of “yes” men that he can fire at the drop of a hat if they so much as mention what everybody within that franchise probably already knows is a problem. As far as I know, that’s the most public example of a guy of that status having his issues exposed.
So why did we not flip shit when we saw this video and have to subject ourselves with Alcoholics Anonymous demanding five years’ worth of public apologies? The answer to that is in my next point…
Point Two: We didn’t hear much about that whole situation because Jones had a problem with booze, not dope. Now I’m not going to sit here and crank out the same old tired pot vs. alcohol argument, but I think we can all agree that the stigma of drug addiction is much different than that of alcoholism. It’s not even close really… Think about this: If you found out that Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf was consuming up to a liter of brandy every day, you probably wouldn’t think twice about it. You’d likely write it off as just another rich guy with a drinking problem, and make some offhand comment about how shitty Christian Ponder or Josh Freeman is. The drinking would be an afterthought at best.
Now, let’s give you a different example to turn the tables a bit – Let’s say just by some freak chemical dependency streak of hilarity that news broke about Chicago Bears owner Virginia Halas McCaskey mainlining up to $750 of heroin a day. That would be a crazy news story, right? Especially when you consider some of the asinine business decisions she has made over the past few years which has resulted in jack shit for a team that can’t remember any of its own fight song after the first four words.
And there’s my point. While the severity of those two substances can be debated, they are both substances nonetheless. The only difference is that you associate one with that of something that can be excused because it is considered socially acceptable, and the other brings thoughts of a ninety pound homeless guy living under a bridge. When in real life, you have to realize that anybody can get addicted to anything regardless of their social class or status. In fact, it’s probably easier for a rich person to become hooked on hard dope and a homeless person to continue to buy gin until the day they tear that bridge down than the other way around. If you don’t believe me, ask Philip Seymour Hoffman’s family.
All that said, I am thoroughly convinced that if this was a story involving Irsay having a drinking problem it would be back page news. But there is one more thing within this level we haven’t even mentioned yet: These weren’t street drugs, they were pills…and there’s a difference. While alcoholism is generally the most accepted form of substance abuse, the drug level below it actually has two subsets: street drugs and pills. Pills are considered to be the more acceptable of the two because they don’t require any paraphernalia to ingest, and most of us take vitamins in pill form every morning. So if you did go to a bathroom and see Irsay throw back a couple of Oxys, you might have just assumed that it was some kind of supplement at best – or at his age some kind of erectile dysfunction drug. The focus here is that it would be acceptable, and that’s why he’s been able to conceal it this long.
I’m not advocating drug use to anyone that might be reading this. But I will say that when it comes to issues such as this one – you have to think twice as opposed to just making snap judgments and weigh all of the factors. You have to understand that the type of money these people have in order to even have the options to not only make these decisions but also cover them up is more money than you and I will ever see in our lifetime until the day we die. These people might not always be dealing in the billions, but they’re dealing in the fractions of billions and hundreds of millions of dollars is plenty to fuel a habit like the one Jim Irsay has developed in his life. I wish him the best of luck in his recovery, but even if he appears to have recovered and relapses – we may never know because of what I’ve just laid out. There are so many people in this country that suffer from alcoholism and prescription drug abuse. And while the industries that have allowed these problems to turn into a powder keg have flourished, so have the industries involved with being able to hide such problems.
Just a little something to keep in mind.