One Thing’s Perfectly Clear: McNair’s DUI Case Enveloped In Fog

By Rick Maese
Updated: May 12, 2007

BALTIMORE — In an interesting plot twist that has football fans double-checking their acronym dictionaries, Ravens quarterback Steve McNair was arrested on a DUI-related charge. At the time, according to police accounts, McNair was not driving (the D), and he may not have even been under the influence (the UI). At the very least, this reminds us that the letter of the law might be clear, but the letters of law sure seem inexact. And because we seem to forget this, another important reminder: Let’s agree that how we interpret and how we react to an athlete dipping his toe in legal trouble isn’t black and white, either. Today, we’re swimming in that gray area where you may not agree with a murky Tennessee law, where you don’t know if there’s a definite right and a definite wrong, and where we have no idea how the NFL will respond. With its new player conduct policy, the league has hinted it might not see all the shades in a black-and-white world. McNair’s alleged infraction – riding shotgun in a car he owned while the driver was allegedly drunk – violated a law that’s unusual at best, simplistic and impractical at worst. As certain states strive to “get tough” and “crack down,” they’ve lengthened the reach of accountability in order to discourage recklessness and, in theory, save lives. “This is a law that’s very scrutinizing of those who own cars and very protective of others on the road, the bystanders,” said Michael McCann, an assistant professor at the Mississippi College School of Law who runs “It’s built around public safety. It is your car, and there’s certain expectations that you’ll be responsible with it. It certainly raises the ante a bit.” And inspires a few puzzled faces. The intent behind the law is fine, but in practice, do we really think passengers are able to accurately gauge a driver’s sobriety? Of course, the legality of the statute in question is only a footnote when you’re weighing right and wrong. A 10th-grade driver’s ed student is as qualified to address this one as a law professor: You don’t set foot in a car being driven by someone who has been drinking, which police say McNair’s driver admitted to. An athlete whose contract has as many commas and zeroes and consonants and vowels can spring for a $10 cab ride. If the facts come out and McNair knowingly allowed someone under the influence to get behind the wheel, he’d probably be guilty of pretty bad judgment. Did he break a law, though? And did he endanger others? It’s foolish to even try inferring definitive answers today. For now, the charge and the limited details available teeter on the sensational – “McNair charged a second time with DUI” – even though he wasn’t convicted the first time and this latest allegation sure seems ripe for contention. The full story is usually too complex to fit on ESPN’s crawl. As a news item, it has the movement of a knuckleball and we really don’t know which direction this one is headed. Already, though, it at least has become a piece of the important dialogue the sports world is currently having about athletes and alcohol. Less than two weeks ago, Josh Hancock of the St. Louis Cardinals died after running his Ford Explorer into a parked tow truck. Initial news reports praised Hancock and mostly ignored the unanswered questions. We later learned that there was much more to the story, and that Hancock had a blood-alcohol level nearly double the legal limit. With a league office champing at the bit for its new sheriff to restore an appearance of order and with a sports world especially sensitive to an alcohol-related infraction, there’s no telling how yesterday’s news will be received by the commissioner’s office. It was just last month that Roger Goodell issued a new conduct policy for NFL players, a set of vague zero-tolerance guidelines that leads us to believe that while the Tennessee judicial system builds its case against McNair, Goodell will have an investigation of his own. Don’t expect much hand-wringing in New York about the intricacies of Tennessee law, though; Goodell makes his own rules. He is essentially the prosecutor, the judge and the jury. He controls the appeals process, too. This means he has the ability to outpace the judicial system, which he already has done in suspending Chris Henry and Adam “Pacman” Jones before either has been convicted in a court of law. There’s a lot of room between good and bad, and when it comes to interpretation, there’s certainly some blurring between black and white. By now, you’d hope that fans and media members fully appreciate that reports of athlete misconduct are rarely cut and dried. As for the league, while its policy is new and precedents are still being set, McNair’s arrest seems to illustrate how much gray area we’re really dealing with. The NFL would be well-served to heed the same warning as fans: When it comes to doling out punishment and deciding complicity, the smart area is somewhere after hard and fast but before weak and slow. It’s the gray area in between.