Diverse game plan tackles NFL trouble

League comes long way in bid to protect players

February 09, 2000|By Jon Morgan and Mike Preston | Jon Morgan and Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

When Ordell Braase joined the Baltimore Colts in 1957, the players received a single lecture by the NFL commissioner before the start of every season. The message: Stay away from gamblers and begin planning now for your life after football.

"They made a big production out of it," Braase recalled this week of the late commissioner Bert Bell's annual road show.

Nowadays, it is an even bigger production. Players are subjected to criminal background checks before they are drafted, and, after they are selected, they attend a mandatory, three-day "rookie symposium" with lectures on everything from investing your newfound riches to wife beating.

Once on a team, they have their urine tested for drugs each year, attend seminars on anger management and face NFL suspensions and fines for running afoul of the law. Each team has a security consultant assigned to it whose job includes keeping tabs on wayward players and, at least in the case of the Ravens, identifying specific nightclubs players should avoid.

Is it enough?

The arrest of Ravens All-Pro Ray Lewis on double-murder charges has raised anew questions about the responsibility of sports leagues and teams for the off-field behavior of players. And it adds distinctly new issues related to the modern world of sports, where a 20-year-old kid can be rendered a millionaire celebrity overnight.

In the case of the NFL, the league boasts that the rate of arrest among its players is half that of other young men in the United States. But the data is subject to interpretation. And, according to Alfred Blumstein, director of the National Consortium on Violence Research, it may miss the point.

"My sense is one-half isn't all that small for people who are supposed to be role models," said Blumstein, a professor at the Carnegie-Mellon University school of public policy who researched NFL arrest rates for a paper published last year in the journal Chance.

Furthermore, the figures are adjusted for race. That is to say, white and black NFL players have arrest rates that are roughly half that of members of their own race and age group in the general population. When combined, NFL players -- who are about two-thirds black -- have arrest rates about 25 percent higher than other men their age, Blumstein said.

Blumstein asks: shouldn't NFL players, who work under close supervision in a highly public occupation and often earn millions of dollars a year, have much lower crime rates than society at large?

"I think there is much more the leagues can do," Blumstein said.

Billick: There are limitations

Ravens coach Brian Billick, who has expanded the team's "life management" training since arriving last year, said people have to be realistic.

"Both ethically and legally, there are limitations to what we can dictate to employees as an organization or I as a head coach," Billick said.

"It's not my place or the organization's place to dictate to anybody -- player, coach or secretary -- who he sees, where he eats, how he chooses to spend his free time, who he marries or where he lives. As long as they are fulfilling their professional obligation, that's all I can legally or ethically expect from them," Billick said.

The Ravens held seminars last year on drinking and driving, professional and personal accountability, relationships and anger management. Former Colts great Lenny Moore was brought in as a speaker to talk about professional and personal accountability. Retired Washington Redskins quarterback and ESPN analyst Joe Theismann gave tips on media relations. Fran Sepler, a Minneapolis-based professional, spoke about sexual harassment.

"We didn't use a moralistic approach on these guys. We didn't preach to them that they shouldn't go to bars, they shouldn't drink, they shouldn't go to nightclubs. We're not that naive," Billick said.

Rather, they presented case studies of misbehavior and the consequences. Billick reinforced the talks throughout the season by posting news clippings in the locker room of players on other teams getting into trouble.

The team has a security consultant, hired by the NFL, who also checks out places where players are invited to appear, or where they socialize. He prepares a list of places the team suggests players avoid.

Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said the team's programs were helpful.

"They tell you how to handle real-life situations, like how to handle yourself if you're pulled over by a cop, how to manage money and how to handle yourself in rough situations," Siragusa said.

However, trouble has a way of finding marquee athletes. Occasionally people look to make a name for themselves by confronting a player, even one as big as Siragusa, who stands 6 feet 3 and weighs 340 pounds.

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