Jim Irsay could have been suspended for half an NFL season. He could have been suspended the entire season. And Commissioner Roger Goodell would have been lauded by media and players, who were watching very closely to see how he handled one of the men who pay his salary.
So on balance, Jim Irsay should count himself as a very lucky man.
The Colts owner pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to OWI and received a sentence that was par for the course for a first-time offender, earning probation and drug testing.
Less than three hours later, Goodell ruled, which suggests to me the league told Irsay, “Plead out, take your medicine and we'll get on with the business of meting out discipline.''
Six games are not too few and they're not too much. They're just about right.
A few weeks after Goodell got it wrong on the Ray Rice domestic violence case – and he acknowledged his shocking lapse in judgment – the commissioner was even-handed in his adjudication of Irsay's March misstep. If this was a player, he would have gotten no suspension and a $50,000 fine. But as an owner, he is held - and should be held - to a higher standard.
In a statement released by the team Tuesday afternoon, Irsay was a lot more apologetic than he was when we spoke after his return from rehab.
“I acknowledge the mistakes I made last March and stand responsible for the consequences of that mistake, for which I sincerely apologize to our community and to Colts fans everywhere. Even more importantly, though, I am committed to do everything in my power to turn this into a positive event for myself, my family and the community. In retrospect, I now know that the incident opened my eyes to issues in my life that needed addressing and helped put me on the path to regain my health.
“I truly hope and pray that my episode will help in some small measure to diminish the stigma surrounding our country's terrible and deadly problem of addiction. It is a disease like other progressive, terminal diseases – one that can only be successfully treated by understanding, committed hard work, and spiritual growth.
“I am deeply grateful for the tremendous outpouring of love and support during these past few months from my family, friends, care-givers, and our great community. Please know I am firmly committed to staying on my path to good health and I look forward to a great season.''
Irsay doesn't know this, doesn't feel this on one of his darkest days as owner of the Indianapolis Colts, but it's true: This is the best thing that could have happened. A 30- to 45-day rehab stint is a Band-Aid. He needs more time to work on himself and work on his sobriety. He needs more time to deal with the various back and hip ailments that conspired to send him reeling back toward dependency.
During a conversation after his return from rehabilitation, Irsay talked at length about how he maintained control of the team while in treatment. He bristled at the notion that his daughter, Carlie, was in charge of the team, even though the Colts put out a press release saying she would be in control in her father's stead. He said he stayed in touch with Ryan Grigson, Chuck Pagano and all the other decision makers in the Colts' front office.
Now, he's got to be a ghost.
Like Robert Mathis, he cannot be around the team, cannot come to the facility, cannot go to games, cannot talk to the media or communicate on Twitter, cannot speak to Grigson, Pagano or anybody else associated with the franchise. (Although I'm not sure how that applies to his daughters, all of whom are in the team's front office).
And that's not such a bad thing. He needs to concentrate on himself, on his meetings, on the things that will help him return to a clean and sober life. He's been entrusted with running an NFL franchise, and it's important for him and for the fans to know that he isn't addled when making huge franchise-changing decisions.
This is going to be a challenge for Irsay, whose love for his team is exceeded only by his love for his family. He is a hands-on owner, even if he's not a meddling owner. Unlike other owners, he grew up in the game, started as a ball boy and eventually moved up to a stint as general manager. When decisions are made, Irsay possesses the last word, even if he tends to give his GM's the latitude to make their own calls on big issues. He's involved, but he's not too involved.
Given his long-held addiction issues, it's remarkable that Irsay has continued to be as good and progressive an owner as he's been over the years. It speaks to his football acumen that at a time when he was struggling with his own demons, he had the good sense to make the transition from Peyton Manning and Bill Polian to Andrew Luck and Ryan Grigson.
It's going to hurt him deeply to stay away. The Colts are his extended family. He bleeds blue.
But it's deeply, desperately necessary.
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