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The hit men

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Posted: Wednesday December 09, 1998 10:46 AM


In hindsight, of course, it seems absolutely impossible that 19 NFL teams passed up the opportunity this year to draft Randy Moss. It was well-known what a sensational prospect Moss was, and if his criminal past, dating back to high school -- when he was jailed for assaulting another student -- was also well known, why would that matter?

After all, as a new book, Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play In The NFL, reports, better than a fifth of all National Football League players have been charged with serious crimes -- everything from murder to robbery, from rape to kidnapping. Assault, especially against women, seems almost commonplace. In this company, Randy Moss hardly appeared unusual.

So now that Moss has established himself with the Vikings, as possibly the best wide receiver in all of football, the question looms even larger. Why didn't Randy Moss get drafted at the top?

Well, almost surely, it was not a sudden fit of good citizenship which caused all those teams to decide they wouldn't sully their roster by adding another player with a rap sheet. Rather, it was just bad timing. Two years before, you see, the St. Louis Rams had chosen Lawrence Phillips from Nebraska at sixth in the draft, despite Phillips' well publicized record of violent crime.

But as a Rams coach observed, "Everybody deserves a second chance -- sometimes a third or fourth chance. Lawrence didn't kill anybody." But unfortunately, Lawrence simply didn't run the ball very effectively for the Rams; also, he was nailed for 56 team rules violations and arrested three more times. Suddenly, compassionate rehabilitation didn't look very attractive to NFL teams -- especially for Moss, who had long been the centerfold for off-the-field football brutality.

  How many teams regret not drafting Moss? Heinz Kluetmeier

Ironically, though, unlike Phillips and a lot of other fourth-chance stalwarts, Moss has been a model of propriety with the Vikings. Notwithstanding, his new success only recalls his notorious past, which, in turn highlights that revelatory new book about NFL player violence -- which has been written by two respected sports investigators, Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger -- and which again begs the question: should the NFL (and other pro leagues) suspend, or even bar, players for private behavior, as it does for vocational misconduct? What difference, really, does it make if you assault the quarterback or your girlfriend?

The leagues, however, always maintain that even though professional athletes are public figures -- even, after a fashion, heroes to children -- nothing they do in their private life should deny them the right to make a living on the field.

The matter is complicated by race. Since so many players are African-American, observers are skittish to approach the issue. As Benedict and Yaeger document, the NFL has an unfortunate habit of defending its policy by implying that it just might publicly accuse critics -- like Bernard Sanders, the Vermont congressman -- of racism.

But neither scare tactics on the one hand nor sensitivity on the other should obscure the fact, that football players simply seem disposed to violence, and altogether too many of them can't distinguish who to hit, inside or outside the sideline stripes. Randy Moss' magnificent season doesn't cancel out the continuing epidemic of football-player savagery. Too many people keep getting hurt. So does the sport.

These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.

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