NFL teams take extra steps to make sure their players are well-protected

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 12:08 AM

When New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck heads out for an evening in Manhattan, he typically reclines in the back of a leather-seated Cadillac Escalade or Mercedes Sprinter van, watching DirecTV or sipping a beverage. When he reaches his destination, he will wait until his driver, an off-duty or former police officer, checks out the premises, making sure the environment is safe and trouble-free.

Only then will Tuck venture inside.

Dressed to blend in with the crowd, the security officer will stay nearby until Tuck is ready to leave. He will quickly intervene should Tuck encounter an unruly fan or group of drunks.

"He kind of stands off to the side and keeps an eye on things," Tuck said. "As an athlete, if you are out by yourself, you never know what might happen. He is a middleman for all of the stuff you don't want to be a part of."

Concerned about allowing their highly paid, high-profile employees to wander unprotected among an often opportunistic public, the Giants and other professional sports teams have recently taken the increasingly popular concept of team-subsidized driving services a step further. They are seeking out companies that provide not only transportation to prevent impaired driving but also bodyguards with law enforcement credentials to ensure incident-free nights on the town.

The services are cost-effective for teams, which face league fines that can total hundreds of thousands of dollars if they have more than one player suspended in a season. The security personnel sign confidentiality agreements that bar them from reporting players' behavior to their teams or outsiders. But unlike personal bodyguards, they are trained to stand up to players rather than take orders from them.

Negative headlines

The efforts are partly a reaction to the headline-grabbing misdeeds of players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Donte Stallworth, Braylon Edwards and dozens of others.

"Our guys head off problems," said John Scutellaro, who co-founded Player Protect of East Rutherford, N.J., in 2007 with former Giants running back Rodney Hampton. "There have been many occasions [when] the player doesn't even know anything happened. And he doesn't need to know."

"Times have changed," added Charles Way, a Giants running back from 1995 to 1999 who is now the team's director of player programs. . . You have to realize now, because of social media, everyone's a reporter. . .This provides that extra level of security."

The challenge is getting players to utilize such services, whether they include bodyguards or merely on-call drivers. The New York Jets recently signed a contract with Player Protect, the same security company the Giants employ, and decided to cover all costs so their players wouldn't have to pay a dime. Yet a little more than two weeks ago, Edwards, a Jets wide receiver, was charged with drunken driving after leaving a nightclub in Manhattan in his own Range Rover.

"It still boils down to whether the player uses it or not," Way said. "We can do everything in our power to prevent the worst from happening, but unless a player uses the resources he has, you don't know what will happen."

The nightmarish public relations problem of wee-hours altercations, intoxicated driving charges and arrests of players has vexed the NFL for years. Since Commissioner Roger Goodell took over in 2006 and immediately tightened the league's player conduct policy, the number of player suspensions has soared.

In the nine years before Goodell assumed the office, 20 players were suspended for violating that policy and NFL rules on substance abuse, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. During Goodell's tenure, 57 players - nearly three times as many - have been suspended, he said.

On call, around the clock

Player Protect bills itself as a full-service security and protection agency. The off-duty or former police officers that it provides to the Jets and Giants are on call around the clock. The agents are willing to pick up athletes, transport them anywhere and monitor their surroundings until they are ready to leave.

The officials wear tuxedos to formal events, jeans to autograph signings and hip clothing to night clubs. They strive to be invisible. They will not allow players to carry guns, use illegal drugs or engage in any illegal activity, but they consider the players' activities and conversations strictly confidential.

The idea, Scutellaro said, is to gain the players' trust, keep things as low-key as possible and discreetly ward off trouble whenever it threatens to surface. During Hampton's playing days, he gave free tickets and tips to Scutellaro, an ex-New Jersey cop, to provide the same coverage, without a formal arrangement.

"Their job is to make sure we stay out of trouble," said Tuck, who pays less than a standard car service fee for the security personnel he has used once or twice a week for the past several years. The Giants pick up the rest of the tab. "We're not going to be seen on the front page of a newspaper somewhere.

"I know of a lot of guys who have personal bodyguards, and those guys do whatever you tell them to do," added Tuck. The Player Protect bodyguards are "going to do what's in your best interest."

Roethlisberger, a Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, returns Sunday from a four-game suspension levied after he was investigated for alleged sexual assault of a college student in a public rest room while his personal bodyguard stood outside the door. No charges were filed in the case. Burress, a former New York Giant, is serving a two-year prison term for firing an unlicensed gun and shooting himself in the leg in a New York nightclub in 2008. Stallworth, a Baltimore Ravens wide receiver, pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter after hitting and killing a pedestrian near Miami Beach in 2009. He was banned for an entire season.

Last week, the Carolina Panthers promptly cut Dwayne Jarrett after he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. The list goes on.

As he began seeking ways to address player misconduct back in 2006, Goodell approached Safe Ride Solutions, a company in San Diego that provides off-duty or former cops to provide confidential rides home to anyone not fit to drive. The company had formed a relationship with the San Diego Chargers after a shooting that year of linebacker Steve Foley by a police officer who suspected him of drunken driving and followed him home.

Goodell worked out a deal with Safe Ride that provided a discount for teams and strongly urged them to take on the service, or offer their players a similar one. Many did. Last year, the NFL Players Association signed a deal with the company, though it switched to a different one this year.

Safe Ride has had relationships with several NBA teams and various U.S. corporations, according to chief executive Gary Lawrence, but none has approached the issue quite like the NFL. Lawrence described the league as "absolutely the most aggressive on [DUI prevention] of any major sports league or any organization in the country."

Under Goodell, teams have been held accountable for their players' off-field actions, receiving scaled fines when players repeatedly misbehave. If two players are suspended in one season, the team is fined 25 percent of the second player's missed salary. If three are suspended, the figure rises to 33 percent, and it's 50 percent for four or more violators.

"The point is to make sure clubs are proactive and make sure problems or potential problems are addressed on the front end," said Adolpho Birch, the NFL's vice president of law and labor policy.

The Redskins declined to comment on whether they employ any transportation or security services, citing confidentiality concerns, but most if not all NFL teams subsidize car services, according to Birch. The team-sponsored bodyguard element is so new, however, that the NFL has not counted the number of teams that have arrangements with organizations such as Player Protect, which claims it is the only athlete-specific security agency in the nation.

Scutellaro said Player Protect is negotiating a contract with the NBA's New Jersey Nets, and other pro franchises have recently called. The company, which has occasionally made arrangements for players outside the New York area and worked last year's Super Bowl in Miami, contracts with about 75 agents and controls a fleet of cars. It is seeking to expand nationwide.

Dave Szott, the Jets' director of player development, said one of his biggest challenges is persuading players that Jets management won't use the Player Protect service to spy on them. In fact, he said, each Jet has been assigned a private number to use when summoning Player Protect, so his name will never appear on an invoice. Szott said team officials know only the number of times the service is used in any month.

"The best thing about this service is it's completely confidential," Way said. "It provides players a sense of privacy. They can go out and not worry about what the team is thinking of them going out. A lot of guys don't want the club to know what they're doing."

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