Commissioner Roger Goodell declared at the Super Bowl that the NFL made "enormous progress" on social issues after last year's incessant barrage of disturbing developments, led by the Ray Rice domestic violence and Adrian Peterson child abuse crises.
That bombardment hasn't much abated in 2015, with at least eight players arrested, a star suspended, an agent indicted and a Hall of Famer fired.
Also enmeshed in the headlines are Johnny Manziel checking himself into a treatment program and the murder trial of Aaron Hernandez getting under way.
All of this against the backdrop of the league's investigation into whether the Super Bowl champion Patriots surreptitiously provided under-inflated footballs for their AFC championship win.
"It's a discouraging start to the new year," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. "But my hope is it's an anomaly for 2015."
That will hinge on whether discipline and dishonour — "the players aren't going to want to be mentioned in the same story as Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson" — serve as deterrents to further transgressions, he said.
The players' union maintains it's not a one-way street, noting that several instances of owner misconduct went unpunished last year, raising questions about the congruity of Goodell's discipline. The union cited the cases of the Vikings' Ziggy Wilf, the Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the Browns' Jimmy Haslam.
"Anytime there are off-field incidents by players, we are disappointed, but we need to put things in some perspective," NFLPA president Eric Winston said. "These incidents are exceptions and not reflective of our membership. This union is focused on supporting players, educating players, fighting for due process and fairness. We are not opposed to discipline as we believe everyone should be held accountable for their actions, but there is so much attention on discipline that the other areas tend to get ignored in the public. We will not ignore them."
Former NFL coach Tony Dungy suggested the players' alleged misdeeds are reflective of society at large, commonplace when young players go from strict schedules to off-season freedom.
"It's always a dangerous time and it kind of happens every year," Dungy said. "If you just read the local paper every day you're going to read about DUIs, speeding tickets, incidents at nightclubs. But it wouldn't be anybody's name you would recognize."
Not so when it's an NFL player.
"The one thing that we have to be careful about is to think it's all of a sudden gotten worse or these guys are different," Dungy said. "I think we can get lost in 'Oh yeah, we had 10 or 12 incidents and forget that the other 1,790 guys are doing quite well."
Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice-president for football operations, said: "Our young men are presented with the greatest platform in the world and how they carry that responsibility determines public perception. Our efforts are focused every day on raising the standard of excellence. We take the approach of shared responsibility and personal accountability in that we have resources and mentors in place to assist these young men where they are challenged. It is their responsibility to utilize them.
"We continue to work each day to bring out the best in all who are associated with the game of football."
A steady stream of arrests and charges since Jan. 1 include:
—Colts linebackers Josh McNary (rape), D'Qwell Jackson (assault) and Andrew Jackson (drunken driving);
—Packers defensive tackle Letroy Guion (drugs);
—Saints pass rusher Junior Galette (assault);
—Jets running back Chris Johnson (weapons);
—Bears cornerback Tim Jennings (drunken driving).
In Kansas, police are investigating a domestic abuse claim against Cowboys running back Joseph Randle made by an ex-girlfriend a day after his arrest at a Kansas hotel on a drug charge that's been dropped. The probe continues.
Browns receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell received 15 months' probation in a first-offender's program following his August arrest on marijuana charges. Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour and was placed on probation in a case stemming from alleged assaults on his wife last year.
And Warren Sapp was fired as an NFL Network analyst after his arrest on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute and allegedly assaulting two women.
Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy faces possible NFL discipline even though prosecutors Monday dismissed domestic violence charges against him after the accuser couldn't be found.
Finally, there's the spectre of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston going No. 1 in the draft despite a history of questionable off-field behaviour.
Dungy said he didn't think most teams would place a higher priority this year on character given all that's transpired, insisting, "Guys with talent are always going to have a place to play."
AP Pro Football Writers Barry Wilner and Rob Maaddi contributed.
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