"Character is what you are in the dark." -- Unknown

Southern legend has it that when asked about boorish behavior by several members of his football team, an old cuss of a college coach remarked with a sly smile: "I like to have a few players that I have to bail out of jail on a Friday night."

This story was told recently to Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells, an unyielding tough-as-nails taskmaster with old-school roots.

Parcells grimaced at the thought before saying flatly, "I want tough guys. I don't want criminals."

When it comes to character in professional sports, especially football, the truth often lies somewhere in between.

Does character count in the NFL?

Every coach, every general manager and every owner will tell you that character is one of the most important traits they look for in a football player. And they undoubtedly will wax poetic about the virtues of having a locker room full of good guys and how crucial it is to building a championship team.

Reality suggests that the bottom line -- a Super Bowl title -- is often what counts the most. And many a Super Bowl championship team has been made up of players with high character, plus a cast of questionable characters.

Among those who are known for their rap sheets as well as their Super Bowl hardware are Michael Irvin (drug conviction), Ray Lewis (obstruction of justice in connection with a double murder), Jamal Lewis (drug conviction), Leonard Little (DWI, involuntary manslaughter) and Bill Romanowski (steroids, assault).

"I personally think character is very important," Richard E. Lapchick said, founder of the Center for Sports and Society at the University of Central Florida. "But the goal of teams is to win. And I think teams at times have been more than willing to overlook" character.

Said Don E. Beck of the National Value Center in Denton, Tex.: "I don't think there is any question that character is important if character can be defined as dependability, integrity, commitment and honesty. These are components that make a very successful team. But that doesn't mean you won't have outlaws. I worked with the Saints when Bum Phillips was the coach, and we had Boy Scouts and outlaws."

"Character is simply habit long continued."

-- Plutarch, Greek biographer (47-120 A.D.)

In analyzing the importance of character for sports teams, a key question must be answered: How do managers, owners and coaches define it?

According to Webster's Dictionary, character is defined as "the pattern or behavior or personality found in an individual or group; moral constitution . . . moral strength, self-discipline, fortitude, etc."

Lapchick said that definition is what comes to mind when the general public thinks about character.

However, he said the layman is more idealistic than realistic about character.

Yet, the idealistic view is the foundation most general managers and coaches start with when they are looking for character within their players.

"My opinion would not be much different than yours," Parcells said. "All of us know what a good human being is. You want to consider a person's dedication and motivation and willingness to do a job, a fair day's work for a fair day's pay kind of thing. You want a dependable, reliable, honest high-grade employee."

Keep talking to sports people and the message starts sounding similar, with more emphasis on dependability than moral soundness.

And therein lies the slippery slope that sports teams often tread when it comes to picking players with supposed good character.

The focus is more on, "is this player going to do the right things to help this team win" rather than "does this player do all the right things all the time in life?"

It's with that understanding that Cowboys consultant Calvin Hill would consider Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis as having more character than recently retired Dolphins running back Ricky Williams.

Lewis' decision to leave the scene of a double murder after Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta (in January 2000), tamper with evidence and subsequently plead guilty to obstruction of justice charges was viewed as indefensible by many.

However, there is also no question he was a teammate the Ravens could count on during their Super Bowl title season a year later. He remains the unchallenged leader of the team.

"A lot of people solely think of character in terms of morality," said Hill, who heads a Cowboys Behavior Program that has been a model for those throughout the NFL. "That is very important. You don't want anybody doing anything amoral."

"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved."

-- Helen Keller, American social activist, public speaker and author (1880-1968)

It might be easy for the morally upright or idealist to look at the Ray and Jamal Lewis situations and that of Rams defensive end Leonard Little, who has been charged with DWI twice, and say the NFL should have a zero-tolerance policy and should prohibit them from playing the game.

That's a naive view when the business of winning is considered.

New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft received a lot of acclaim for his decision in 1996 to renounce the rights to defensive tackle Christian Peter once he learned the extent of Peter's legal problems in college, including a no-contest plea for third-degree sexual assault. Kraft even went so far as to decline a trade offer for Peter before releasing him because he did not want his team to profit from its mistake.

But would he have done the same if Peter had been a first-round pick rather than a fifth-rounder?

According to Lapchick, it's a question that would have given Kraft pause.

"I remember congratulating him about the decision, and he said he was fortunate it was Peter and not (quarterback) Drew Bledsoe," Lapchick recalled. "He said, 'I don't know if I could have done it with Drew Bledsoe.' "

Hill, however, reiterates that pure moral judgments can't come into play when building a football team. He said nobody wants simply "goody goody" guys. They want fighters. And in that respect, he says Irvin and Lewis have as much character as Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach.

"Off the field, Roger is as perfect as anybody I've been around," Hill said. "You love that about him. On the field, he was a fighter like Ray, like Michael."

Beck agrees with Hill.

"The nature of the game draws egocentric people like Ray Lewis," Beck said. "He has a raw sense of self and it makes him a good middle linebacker. He has an attack mentality. You don't want players to lose their edge."

But Beck says there is boundary somewhere that should not be crossed or "we all lose." He said sports organizations are trying to do their part, citing the NFL's personal conduct policy. "Over time, when you have character, when you have integrity, when you have trust, it does contribute to a more effective team," Beck said.