Leaving It All on the Football Field
When It Comes to Violence, That Is What NFL Wants
By Leonard Shapiro and Thomas Heath
Lewis's arrest in the stabbing deaths of two men outside an Atlanta nightspot was the latest in a series of high-profile criminal cases involving NFL players in recent months. Only six weeks before, Charlotte Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth had become the first active player in league history to be charged with murder, following the death of his pregnant girlfriend. She was shot four times while driving her car, and Carruth has been accused of orchestrating the drive-by shooting. The baby survived.
Other NFL players have been charged with a variety of transgressions over the past year. Indianapolis Colts defensive back Steve Muhammad was charged with battery in the beating of his pregnant wife, who died in November from labor complications brought on by injuries suffered in an auto accident. He was cleared in her death, but has a March 21 hearing on the battery charge. Denver Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith was charged last month with third-degree assault after an altercation with his common law wife. Miami Dolphins running back Cecil Collins has been charged with fondling women in two separate incidents.
These examples once again have spurred debate on the root causes of violence off the field by pro football players. Obviously, the hard-hitting, aggressive nature of the game attracts individuals who understand what makes a good football player. And one of the characteristics of good football players is to be violent on the field--in a controlled situation. But there is evidence that some athletes have a difficult time turning off these aggressive characteristics once the game ends.
"My sense is that there is a greater number of [off-the-field] incidents now than there has ever been, not in just what we hear about, but in the level of seriousness of the arrests," said Don McPherson, a former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback who works with Athletes Helping Athletes--an organization that trains older athletes to work with youngsters.
McPherson and others attribute some of the off-the-field problems to causes ranging from an increasingly violent society to less respect toward authority, to many athletes coming from crime-infested neighborhoods and impoverished backgrounds to the number of football players who fail to graduate from college, or take meaningful classes when they are on campus. Big money also is an issue, especially among athletes who feel pressure from longtime friends to share their new-found wealth.
"There's no question that if you come from a background where violence or use of guns and knives is part of the social landscape, then you are more likely to carry those weapons," said McPherson, a graduate of Syracuse University. "More athletes are coming out of college early, which isn't an issue of education but whether their intent is to work within the system. That means you adhere to rules. If you're not working in the system, then you are above the system."
The Lewis and Carruth cases have affected how some people feel about the NFL and could have an impact on the image of the nation's most popular sport. Nevertheless, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue insisted in an interview on Friday that incidents of violence among his players actually have decreased over the last three years.
According to internal statistics the league supplied to The Washington Post, the number of players who were investigated by law enforcement for violent crimes decreased from a total of 50 (out of more than 2,000 players) in 1997 to 37 investigations for 1999. The league also said convictions for violent crimes are down as well, from 23 in 1997 to nine in 1999.
"When you get serious, violent misconduct, it becomes a major story," Tagliabue said. "Perception frequently differs from reality. Our track record on these incidents is that not only are they declining within the league, we're far better than society at large in terms of rates of incidents in comparative groups of young people.
"The most important thing is to focus on prevention, to deter players from getting involved in these problems. I don't think there's one single, dramatic thing we could do. We know that alcohol is involved in these things, and we have a strong program in place to deal with that. Hanging out with the wrong people can lead to problems, and we are trying to get that message across. The clubs are always looking for red flags in a player's past. The striking thing is that people with these problems don't often show those red flags. Rae Carruth is a good example of that."
Tampa Bay's John Lynch is widely considered one of the league's hardest-hitting safeties. The seven-year NFL veteran, who competed in yesterday's Pro Bowl, is a model citizen off the field.
"I think most players know how to leave the violence on the field," Lynch said after a Pro Bowl practice in Hawaii last week. "You only read or hear about the guys who step over the line. But it's only a few who give the rest of us a bad name.
"This is a tough man's game. But you can't take it home with you. You learn how to separate the two as you get older. The best way to stay out of trouble is to stay away from places where trouble can find you."
With teams now selling for hundreds of millions of dollars, with the pressure to win immediately, with coaches and personnel executives looking for any edge they can get, a talented but troubled player often gets the benefit of the doubt.
This past season, for example, the Miami Dolphins drafted Collins in the fifth round. He had been in and out of trouble since high school and came into the league on probation involving an incident when he broke into a woman's apartment in Baton Rouge, La., and fondled her. Midway through the 1999 season, after winning the Dolphins' starting job, Collins was arrested in a similar incident in Florida and thrown off the team. His probation has since been revoked and he is facing the prospect of a jail sentence in Louisiana.
Stuart Weinstein has been director of security for the Dolphins for 15 years. A former private investigator, he spent many hours researching Collins before the draft and advised coach Jimmy Johnson it was worth the risk to select Collins.
"We had [Collins] in counseling," Weinstein said. "We talked with him every day about doing the right thing. I went with him to his probation meetings. We wanted to show him we cared about him and we expected him to care about the team and what he was doing. He still [got involved in another fondling situation]. Cecil Collins conned a lot of people around here, me included. He was a major disappointment. I thought it was going to be all win-win. But we learned we couldn't trust him.
"There are times when it doesn't work, but I would say as a league, we've done a pretty good job. There are 2,000 or more players. You are going to have problems; that's just a given. You are not necessarily going to have murders, but it's unrealistic to think there won't be some bad apples."
Randy Cross, a former Pro Bowl center for the San Francisco 49ers and now a CBS broadcaster, said that, as an active player, "I was always wary about who I associated with. Always knew there were things out there that could get you in trouble. Athletes have always been coddled. But now, maybe in the last 10 years, there's so much more of an analogy between athletes and entertainers. And for some reason, people in both professions think it's cool to drive around with guns and knives.
"I'd bet that if you did a poll of athletes, you'd be shocked at how many guys carry guns. They believe they need it for protection. Guys see themselves differently then the way I used to see myself. When I played [in the 1980s and early '90s] we did not have this breed-apart mentality. Now a lot of these guys think they are. They believe there are no rules for them. A lot of it comes from the money."
Don Sabo, a professor of sociology at D'Youville College in Buffalo, said a big contributor to violence among athletes is what he calls "the privileged athlete hypothesis."
"These guys in earlier careers in college . . . get into trouble and the coaches, athletic departments or support of the cops gets them off," Sabo said. By the time they reach the professional level, he said, players become accustomed to getting away with behavior for which most people are held accountable.
Tagliabue said he does not believe violence on the field begets violence off it, if only because the vast number of players throughout the history of the league have no problem distinguishing between right and wrong while they played, or for the rest of their lives.
"I don't buy the notion that because they play a collision, contact sport that there's a greater propensity to violent conduct," Tagliabue said. "We need to recognize that in society at large we have a problem of violence. We've seen it in schools and in the workplace. That doesn't mean we're going to make excuses and therefore don't have to address it, but it's there. We're doing everything we can to eliminate it."
"Violence is a part of our society," said Tampa Bay Coach Tony Dungy, who coached the NFC at the Pro Bowl. "It affects all walks of life. Most of the players in our league are good citizens. But it really all comes down to making the right choices. The younger players have to be careful because they suddenly have a lot of friends. You have to figure out who your friends really are, and that's up to each individual."
Former Oakland Raiders defensive end Howie Long, selected last month to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and now a Fox broadcaster, said he is constantly amazed that players associate with people who have the potential to bring them down, whether they're called entourages, posses or crews. Ray Lewis, he said, was a prime example.
"When you make the kind of money these guys are being paid now, it's almost surreal. I always call people who hang on to athletes 'Barneys,' " Long said. "That's short for barnacles, just a name I came up with for folks who hang around you and won't let go. You have to have people around you who are important enough and smart enough to tell you when you're screwing up or just being a jerk. When there are too many Barneys around, the lines become blurred."
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter, a 13-year NFL veteran, said players are especially impressionable upon first arriving in the league.
"It's easy to get caught up in the wrong crowd, especially your first couple of seasons," Carter said. "You may just be hanging out, trying to have fun. But if you're in a bad place, bad things can happen."
Despite the NFL's assertion that crime statistics for NFL players have declined recently, some observers say the league should have fewer incidents because of the high-visibility role it plays in American culture.
"The issue is what is a reasonable standard for NFL players compared to the rest of the population," said Alfred Blumstein, a professor at the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University. "I think [the NFL rate of assaults] is pretty high for people who should have the obligation that they do for being effective role models."
Blumstein co-authored a study on NFL player assaults last year in Chance magazine, published by the American Statistical Association. The NFL cites the study as evidence that the league does better than comparable groups in society when it comes to assault arrests.
The study said the rate of assault arrests of a pool of 509 NFL players (out of about 1,500 in the league at the time) was just under half (about 46 percent) of the rate of assault arrests experienced by men of similar race and age in society.
The NFL, working in conjunction with its players union, has a number of programs in place to help its athletes cope, including a three-day rookie symposium on life skills education that covers domestic violence and sexual assault, among many topics. The league and union also provides confidential professional counseling services for players and families and "player programs coordinators" at the team level.
Ray Wright, former head of player programs with the Washington Redskins, said the league should do even more to help the players work through their problems.
"The teams and league like to say they have player programs in place, but certain things they don't follow through with," Wright said. "I came in [when Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder took over last year] and I thought people in the league office would come here and show some interest . . . that they show this program has some teeth. It's disappointing."
Joe Browne, NFL senior vice president of communications, said the league has tried to help players through its various support services while also disciplining players in terms of heavy fines and suspensions for unlawful acts off the field.
As an example, Rams linebacker Leonard Little, who missed half of the 1998 season because he was serving jail time for vehicular homicide stemming from drunken driving, was then suspended by the league for half of the 1999 season.
Not everyone is convinced the league is doing all it can to eliminate the violent and sometimes criminal element in its midst.
"The best thing I can say is professional football is a business," said Jackson Katz, who has consulted with the U.S. Marine Corps on how to help reduce violence against women. "When they are recruiting football players they are not recruiting model citizens. Everybody has to be aware of this. What's being selected for the NFL is the ability to play and perform on Sunday afternoons. Everything else is secondary."
Special correspondent Paul Arnett contributed to this report from Honolulu.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company