Thursday, April 26, 2007

Character – the true test of this year’s NFL Draft

The Oakland Raiders are on the clock as football fans get ready for Saturday’s NFL draft. The Raiders a team whose fans have always been known for their spirited fans have the first pick. With the announcement earlier this month of the NFL’s first serious player conduct code more than ever character of players selected by NFL teams will be under tremendous scrutiny.

"It is important that the NFL be represented consistently by outstanding people as well as great football players, coaches, and staff," Commissioner Goodell said. "We hold ourselves to higher standards of responsible conduct because of what it means to be part of the National Football League. We have long had policies and programs designed to encourage responsible behavior, and this policy is a further step in ensuring that everyone who is part of the NFL meets that standard. We will continue to review the policy and modify it as warranted."

Added NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw: "The NFL Players Association and the Player Advisory Council have been discussing this issue for several months. We believe that these are steps that the commissioner needs to take and we support the policy. It is important that players in violation of the policy will have the opportunity and the support to change their conduct and earn their way back."

The NFL Draft serves the building blocks for a team’s future. First round picks earn multi-million dollar bonuses but who a team selects in the second, third and fourth round often prove to be the key to whether a team contends for a playoff spot or are on left on the outside looking in. Teams’ can gamble with their fifth, sixth and seventh round picks but organizations have to be successful in their early round draft picks.

After his junior year, Adam “Pacman” Jones opted to forgo his senior year and declare eligible for the NFL Draft. He was the first defensive player drafted, taken 6th overall by the Tennessee Titans. He then missed most of training camp, holding out in a contract dispute. Jones has been suspended for the 2007 season because of his behavior away from the football field. For the Tennessee Titans having the sixth overall pick in the 2005 draft should have resulted in a player delivering on the football field for many years to come. Pacman’s long-term future with the Titans is very much in doubt. If Pacman Jones ends up being cut by the Titans, the decision to draft Jones would represent a dramatic step backwards for the Titans. Jones has delivered everything that was expected of him on the field but his deviant behavior off the field has put his NFL future very much in doubt.

Chris Henry was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round of the 2005 pick. Cincinnati's No. 3 receiver has been arrested four times since December 2005, has been suspended for the first eight games of next season for violating the NFL's conduct policies. He spent two days in jail last January after pleading guilty to letting minors drink alcohol in a hotel room he had rented.

Jones and Henry are the poster-boys for the type of players NFL teams can’t afford to draft this Saturday.

"There has always been pressure to weed out at-risk (prospects) in the draft, and when the money began to get so big, the pressure increased because there was so much more financial exposure," said Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay in an ESPN report. "But now, with the new player conduct policy and some of the things that (Goodell) has enacted, everyone seems to feel the heat even more. We're really under the gun."

"Every little thing you do," said Miami Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller, "is going to be magnified right now."

"Making bad picks, for skill or character, is costly," said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome. "But you might be able to better (reconcile) the first. Because on the character stuff, well, if a kid's had problems in college, he's probably going to continue to have some similar problems. You don't want to miss on anybody, for any reason. But you really don't want to miss on the character stuff."

"There's a tendency to buy the bargain," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis acknowledged at the annual league meetings last month. "To believe in a guy's willingness to turn a corner in his life. To believe that he'll know and understand that it's a privilege to play in the NFL. But we're not in a position to do that anymore.

"Maybe you lose some players if character questions are going to take guys off your board. But it's not a bad choice. There are a lot of good players (with problems), but there are too many other good guys, too. You're spending too much time trying to change habits instead of coaching the good guys."

"Everybody knows who the bad apples are. But not every (team) judges the rottenness of the apple the same way. I mean, we always talk about guys having red flags next to their names on the draft board. Well, sometimes, those red flags have been more like pink flags. Other times, they're, like, fire-engine red. But with what's gone on lately, I think most teams now see red as red. No matter how tempting a guy might be, in the long run, you're probably better off not biting into that apple" Kansas City coach Herm Edwards

Earlier this week The San Diego Union Tribune offered a two-part look at NFL teams and the character issues that have surfaced in recent months and everyone involved with Saturday’s draft acknowledges will be a major factor.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reviewed hundreds of news reports and public records since January 2000 and found that the league's biggest problems with the law are in many ways just as ordinary: drunken driving, traffic stops and repeat offenders.
In addition, contrary to public perception, the arrest rate among NFL players is less than that of the general population, and fueled by many of the same dynamics, analysts say.

According to the Union-Tribune review, there have been 308 arrests or citations, not including minor traffic infractions.

Of those 308 incidents, according to the Union-Tribune report:

The most prevalent charge was driving under the influence, which accounted for almost a third of the arrests. Over half of all incidents came after traffic stops or were vehicle-related, including DUIs and searches that turned up drugs or guns.

Almost 40 percent (122) were committed by 50 players with multiple arrests, including DUI and other offenses.

Some teams are clearly better behaved than others. The St. Louis Rams (three incidents involving two players) might have something to teach the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals, who combined for at least 44 incidents since 2000.

The most troublesome positions were defensive back and wide receiver, which accounted for 130 incidents. By contrast, offensive linemen and quarterbacks combined for 41.

To analysts and those who study crime and race in society, this all adds up to one thing. They say it's a media-amplified microcosm of America, where rich young men like to party and, because of complex environmental factors, where the rate of incarceration for blacks in the United States is five times that of whites.

“You can say for sure the athletes have a problem, but athletes are not the problem,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “They are representative of society where many of these issues are epidemic.”

“With the attention these players get, it's not like, 'Gee, it's Friday night, and I don't have anything to do,'” said Dr. Robert Troutwine, an industrial psychologist who helps NFL teams develop personality evaluations of players. “Compared to some of us who have more pedestrian social lives, partying is part of the culture if you're young and you make a lot of money.”

“It makes sense for these guys to take a cab or take a limo,” said Dan Lazaroff, director of the Sports Law Institute at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “I don't know why you'd want to put yourself in harm's way. Maybe somebody has an expensive car and doesn't want to leave it behind.”

And the “money” issue. Consider some of these recent bonuses and contracts paid signed by young men who have either attended university for four years or in the case of Pacman Jones and many other high draft picks decided to leave school after their junior year for the opportunity to play on Sunday.

Alex Smith the first overall pick from the 2005 draft signed a 6-year, $49.5 million contract. Smith received $24 million in guaranteed money, which included his bonus. Smith's average annual salary of $8.25 million topped the $7.5 million average the Giants gave to quarterback Eli Manning, the first pick in the 2004 draft.

The $24 million in guarantees for Smith was a 20 percent increase over Manning's deal -- Manning had $20 million of his $45 million guaranteed in 2004. Both deals were negotiated by Tom Condon and Ken Kremer of IMG Football.

The first overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft, Mario Williams, signed a 6 year, $54M ($26.5M guaranteed) with the Houston Texans. Reggie Bush, picked second signed by the New Orleans Saints signed for 6 yrs., $62M ($26.3M guaranteed) and Vince Young, who was selected third overall signed 5-6 yrs., $58M ($25.7M guaranteed) with the Tennessee Titans. D'Brickashaw Ferguson, 4th overall, 6 yrs., $37.5M ($17.5M guaranteed) with the New York Jets.

It’s safe to assume whomever the Raiders draft with the first overall selection Saturday will earn roughly 20 percent more than Williams did last year. It’s safe to assume the bonuses paid to players in the first round will be anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent higher than the same players drafted in those spots in the 2006 draft.

Commissioner Goodell has put NFL teams on notice in regard to the league’s new player conduct code. Firstly the conduct code applies to anyone working either for the National Football League or an NFL team and while the punishment clauses of the conduct code that Goodell announced only applied to players, Goodell plans on announcing in the near future a series of penalties that will apply to NFL franchises as well. Those penalties could include the loss of draft picks.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft took a stand against employing players with criminal records eleven years ago, setting a standard for every NFL owner that has yet to be matched. In the fifth round of the 1996 NFL draft, the Patriots picked Nebraska defensive lineman Christian Peter, who had been arrested eight times (and convicted four times) during college for a variety of offenses, including the assault of a former Miss Nebraska and the rape of another woman. When Peter's past came to light (it was Kraft’s wife who alerted her husband), Kraft cut the player before he was even offered a contract. "We concluded this behavior is incompatible with our organization's standards of acceptable conduct" said Kraft. While he received numerous letters of support from high school and college coaches, he was not praised by the NFL. Peter’s had a seven-year NFL career. None of the teams Peter played with have come close to winning the three Super Bowls the Patriots have since cutting Peter before he had a chance to wear the Patriots uniform. It would appear to Robert Kraft principal and what makes a man a man are as important as his ability to play on Sunday.

Said New England owner Bob Kraft, echoing the consensus view: "I think the American people are fed up with overindulged athletes who are making very high incomes, and can lead a certain style of life, and don't respect the responsibilities they have to conduct themselves in a certain manner. It's just good business to have good people connected with your brand name."

As ESPN’s Len Pasquarelli’s suggested: the NFL is the most preeminent sports entity of this or any time, with revenues exceeding $6 billion annually, and an economic standing for virtually everyone involved that would be envied by any big business. No one wants to kill the golden goose. And ensuring the stability and integrity of that goose might begin by guaranteeing that the NFL hatches even fewer problems with a process that begins at conception, with the draft.

"We want people in our league who not only contribute on the field but also contribute in the community," said Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney. "That might be a little (idealistic) and, hey, I know you can't have a bunch of choirboys. But I don't think it's too much to expect your guys to behave themselves, to obey the law, to have some 'role-modeling' to them. It's still an achievable thing, having a team that plays well and behaves well. And it all starts with taking the right kind of people."

Due diligence aside, what is even more important that making sure your team doesn’t draft a Pacman Jones with the sixth overall pick, you take a serious look at the misadventures of a college football player. Remember at the end of the day they are teenagers and young men who can and will make mistakes. For every Chris Peter (a hallmark decision in the success the Patriots have enjoyed on the field), teams believing a college student who may have had one too many one night doesn’t necessarily mean the player should be bypassed in the NFL draft.

"Everybody knows who the bad apples are. But not every (team) judges the rottenness of the apple the same way," allowed Kansas City coach Herm Edwards. "I mean, we always talk about guys having red flags next to their names on the draft board. Well, sometimes, those red flags have been more like pink flags. Other times, they're, like, fire-engine red. But with what's gone on lately, I think most teams now see red as red. No matter how tempting a guy might be, in the long run, you're probably better off not biting into that apple."
For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The San Diego Union Tribune and ESPN.com

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