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Player deaths fail to dim popularity of NFL

By Simon Evans

(Reuters) - The tragic, unrelated deaths of two National Football League (NFL) players this month may have triggered fresh debate about the behavior of some of the sport's competitors, but has done nothing to harm the game's enormous popularity in the United States.

Just over a week ago, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend at their home then drove to the team's training facility and killed himself, in front of his coach and general manager.

Then on Saturday, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent was charged with intoxication manslaughter after the car he was driving flipped over and caught fire, killing team mate Jerry Brown, a passenger in the car.

The NFL has long been plagued by cases of off-field violence, including gun crime and drink-driving by players, but even after the latest violent deaths there was no indication fans were turning away.

Both the Chiefs and the Cowboys played games the day after the death of their respective teammates, with only a few isolated voices suggesting the games should not have gone ahead.

Both games were heavily attended and the NFL's prime-time Sunday game was once again the top-rated show in its weekly time slot.

In the tough-guy macho culture of the NFL, battling through adversity is one of the main mantras from coaches, players and media alike.

The Belcher murder-suicide was just the latest violent incident involving NFL players and firearms.

Former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, was found dead at his home in May, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

In 2009, former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair was shot dead by his lover in his Nashville apartment in a murder-suicide.

Plaxico Burress served 20 months in prison after accidentally shooting himself in 2008 at a nightclub, a season after catching the Super Bowl-winning touchdown for the New York Giants.

According to a report by USA Today, three out of four NFL players own a gun, above the national average, but the ratio of gun-related crimes in the NFL was no worse than in general American society.

"It's not really the culture of the NFL, it's about what's going on in society today," Burress told USA Today.

"It will (be a topic) for a while but over time something else will happen and we will be having the same discussion then."

The debate following Belcher's murder-suicide brought heated opinions and controversy. Prominent NBC broadcaster Bob Costas used his television segment to advocate for gun control, earning the wrath of the National Rifle Association.

Some players argued that big-earning, high-profile individuals, were at greater risk of being targeted by criminals and needed guns for their protection.

The case of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who was shot dead by burglars in 2007, is often cited by players when they explain their high rate of gun ownership.

But while gun-related crimes grab headlines, drink-driving is a bigger problem among players.

The San Diego Union Tribune newspaper reported there were 385 arrests of NFL players between 2000-2008 and 29 percent were for drink-driving.

The league tried to address the problem with a 'Safe Rides' program which was later taken over by the players' union.

The NFL has taken a strong line with sanctions for off-field trouble through a personal conduct policy.

"We strive every day, not just when a crisis occurs, but every day, to bring the best practices available in providing a safe and productive workplace environment for all our employees and their families," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Reuters.

"Specifically, we address domestic violence and gun safety, as well as many other issues, including alcohol and substance abuse, as part of our Employee Assistance Program and other services."

(Editing by Frank Pingue and Julian Linden)

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