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Death raises question of league’s safety net

IRVING, Texas – San Francisco 49ers defensive end Demarcus Dobbs walked away from a one-vehicle accident on his 25th birthday last month and was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

Less than two weeks later, with the NFL rocked by the car crash that killed Dallas Cowboys player Jerry Brown and left his teammate, Josh Brent, facing a manslaughter charge, Dobbs swears he’ll find another way home whenever he does too much partying.

“I’m never going to put myself in that situation ever again,” he said.

This is, of course, exactly what the NFL, its teams and the players’ union want to hear amid fresh questions about whether all the warnings and safety nets – because players in most of the major sports leagues arguably have more than the general public – will ever be enough to prevent accidents and deaths.

“There’s a lot of pressure being in the NFL ... but it’s no excuse for bad decisions,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “Players have a lot of options, tools at their disposal, that they need to take advantage of, but it comes down to individuals making good decisions.”

Brown’s death Saturday and the arrest of defensive tackle Brent after police say he caused the fatal wreck by speeding and driving drunk put the NFL Players Association’s safe ride program back in the spotlight. It was revamped three years ago after concerns that enough players weren’t using it.

Union spokesman Carl Francis said the program is a strong point of emphasis, and every player’s membership card includes the contact information. And CEO John Glavin of Florida-based Corporate Security Solutions Inc., which runs the program, said he is happy with how the union gets the word out on the program.

He also stressed the confidentiality of the program, saying the company doesn’t even tell the union when players call for rides.

Jacksonville cornerback CB Rashean Mathis, the team’s union representative, said players rarely, if ever, use the program.

“Confidentiality is the problem,” Mathis said. “Guys are going to go out and have fun. We’re just like the regular guy that works a 9-to-5 job. On a Friday night, he goes out and has some beer. It’s not the best-case scenario, but it happens in life.”

To use the program, players can either work in advance to set up a full night with a driver or make a call for a ride home. The brochure says most response times are less than an hour. The program is available all year, and Glavin said his company also serves the NBA and NHL.

In Major League Baseball, designated drivers are available to players and fans through the teams, and the players have access to a confidential program that will take them wherever they need to go.

In the NFL, some teams rely solely on the NFLPA’s program, while others have an additional system. In Cincinnati, the Bengals pay a company to make two drivers available when an employee calls. One drives the caller home, and the other follows in the employee’s vehicle.

Glavin said some players hesitate to use that kind of program because they don’t want others driving their expensive vehicles. Either way, the program hinges on a player making the first move.

“We can’t make them make the phone call,” Glavin said.

Last summer, the NFL held its 15th annual rookie orientation, which includes a number of life skills sessions. For the first time, separate sessions were held for the AFC and NFC to make the groups smaller, and current and former players were brought in as speakers, including Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick and Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones. Both have had high-profile legal problems, with Vick spending time in prison in a dogfighting case.

The NFL has sessions on issues ranging from guns to alcohol and drug use at other times of the years, and all teams have counselors who work with players, league spokesman Dan Masonson said.

League owners are gathering in the Dallas area Wednesday. The agenda was set to focus in part on player safety through the addition of leg padding, but it’s likely to change. A week before Brown’s death, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend before driving to the team’s stadium and shooting himself in front of his coach and general manager.

“I am sure the events of the past two weeks will be discussed at the league meeting,” league spokesman Greg Aiello said. “We are always looking to do more.”

Several coaches said Monday they were talking again about issues of safety and good decisions after Brown’s death. They also acknowledged there was only so much they could do, as did Mathis.

“We’re not immune from life because we’re athletes,” Mathis said. “We’re not, but there are smarter choices.”

SBlt AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley, Larry Lage, Mark Long and Joe Kay contributed to this report.

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