Work in Sports
Dealing with Violence
What's the NFL doing to combat off-field incidents?
Posted: Friday March 03, 2000 01:18 PM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
ATLANTA -- When NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue took the podium in Atlanta on the Friday before Super Bowl XXXIV for his annual address to the media, the first question he faced had nothing to do with parity or trophies or Super Bowls.
It wasn't even about stadium issues or steroids or salary caps.
The question concerned the alarming number of violent, off-the-field incidents committed by NFL players.
It remains a subject the league cannot avoid.
League officials point to the programs they have in place to keep players from getting into trouble. They cite the policies they have for dealing with players who get into trouble.
Still, the images linger:
There are many more instances of violent behavior by NFL players.
"We can't predict what NFL players will do," Tagliabue said at the Super Bowl, "any more than we can predict students shooting other students or workers shooting fellow workers."
His words proved eerily accurate. Not three days after Tagliabue's address, Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens was arrested and charged with the murders of two Atlanta-area men. The image of Lewis being led into an Atlanta courtroom in handcuffs threatens to haunt the league for years.
While some critics say that the NFL has a problem that is endemic to the league, NFL officials contend that the violence among NFL players is not greater than the problem affecting society as a whole. Although they may argue over the methodologies and interpretations of criminal justice statistics, both the league and its critics do share one contention. They agree that pro football players should be held to a higher standard.
Before the 1997 season, amid growing concern about violence in the league, the NFL adopted an anti-violence policy, the only one of its kind among the major U.S. sports. The NFL's Violent Crime Policy today calls for a mandatory psychological evaluation for any player accused of a violent crime, and a fine or suspension for those convicted of or admitting to a violent crime.
"Several" players, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, have gone into counseling under the policy. And several have been fined, according to Aiello. But none has been suspended under the policy.
In mid-February, two weeks after Lewis was charged with murder, Tagliabue called his staff together to, among other things, further examine the league's response to off-the-field violence. According to Aiello, it's possible more stringent measures to try to stem violence -- or to punish those who commit violent off-field acts -- will be adopted.
"You never feel you're doing enough whenever one of these episodes occurs," Aiello said. "The question is, what more can you do?"
One of the challenges that scouts and personnel directors face is finding players who can be aggressive on the field but who can control their violent impulses off the field. Rookies undergo psychological tests before they are drafted, but there is no sure-fire screening process for violence. Many teams, experts say, don't know how to recognize the signs that point to an athlete who may be prone to violence.
"There will be tracks. If there are instances of surly type, rebellious patterns -- not going to class, sassing back to an assistant coach ...," said Dr. Don Beck, a sports psychologist and co-founder of The National Values Center, a Dallas-based consulting firm. "If he's had some pattern of being aggressive with females."
Teams also need to "select the selectors," Beck said. Too many teams rely on scouts or coaches who have no understanding of a player's background. They are the ones who often make the call on whether a player could be a problem. "I would rely heavily on a pretty savvy human being that comes from the same type of environment," Beck said.
And few teams know how to ask the questions whose answers might reveal a tendency toward antisocial or violent behavior. In trying to determine where a player falls on a "Boy Scout-to-Outlaw scale," Beck said, teams need to ask confrontational questions.
Only then can someone get an idea of how well a player may be able to control any violent tendencies.
Still, teams routinely turn a blind eye to a violent past if the player they want has skills the team needs. Sometimes, with players like Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss, who took part in a brawl in high school, it works out. Moss was a sensation as a rookie in 1998 and has stayed out of trouble, for the most part, in his two seasons in the NFL.
Other times, it doesn't work out.
Lawrence Phillips, who was convicted of misdemeanor assault while at Nebraska, went on an NFL odyssey from St. Louis to Miami to Europe to San Francisco. He has had several legal problems in his career, including arrests for drunken driving and disorderly conduct. He was recently released by the 49ers.
Former Miami Dolphins running back Cecil Collins, who was kicked off the Louisiana State team after an arrest for unauthorized entry and sexual battery, then was dismissed from the McNeese State team after only two games for failing a court-imposed drug test, still found a home in the NFL. Now, he stands charged with two counts of burglary for breaking into a neighbor's apartment and faces extradition for violating probation in the Louisiana case. He has pleaded not guilty to the Florida charges, but has been released by the Dolphins.
If the NFL is going to see any real improvement, critics say that the league must come down harder on those who commit violent crimes.
"Where the NFL fails, and fails in a significant way," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sports in Society, "is that there are no serious consequences for the violence that happens off the field."
The NFL suspended Carruth only after the Panthers waived him and only after Carruth fled from police. In fact, the league didn't suspend him under the Violent Crime Policy at all, but rather under a more general policy for conduct the league deemed detrimental to its well being.
The NFL suspended the St. Louis Rams' Leonard Little for eight games after his guilty plea to a charge of involuntary manslaughter. But that suspension fell under the auspices of the league's substance abuse policy. Little was legally drunk in October 1998 when he drove off after a night of partying and slammed into the car of a St. Louis woman, killing her.
While the NFL has suspended players for substance abuse violations -- including Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Josh Evans, who has been suspended for the upcoming season after he tested positive for drug use a second time -- the league has not responded as quickly in cases of violence. The NFL's Violent Crime Policy calls for a suspension without pay, or banishment from the league for a "period of time to be determined by the commissioner," if a player is convicted or admits to a second crime of violence. But, so far, no player has been suspended under the policy.
Jason Fabini and Jumbo Elliott, two members of the New York Jets, were involved in a brawl that injured several people in a New York bar last July. Also in the fight was former Jets player Matt O'Dwyer, now with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Three police officers were injured when O'Dwyer kicked out the windshield of a police car, and an 18-year old woman allegedly suffered nerve damage to her chest and back when the 305-pound Elliott struck her. It took several police officers to break up the fight.
Elliott pleaded guilty to harassment and disorderly conduct charges, was fined and ordered to perform community service. Fabini, who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and third-degree assault, will have the charges dropped if he avoids arrest for the next six months. O'Dwyer pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and disorderly conduct, was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay more than $4,000 for kicking out the window of the police car.
As yet, no one in that incident has been fined or suspended by the NFL, though under the Violent Crime Policy, fines are likely.
"I think we have to decide, as a league, what to do about people found guilty who do have problems," Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy said. "Are we going to continue to give them other opportunities?"
University of California sociologist Harry Edwards, an adviser to some pro sports teams, has said that as more top athletes come from economically disadvantaged areas, violence is likely to increase and the league will have to face even more difficult decisions.
Sports psychologist Beck, though, disagrees.
"What we're seeing here is a coming of age of a subculture, which was in the past held back because of racism and segregation," he said. "Much of the turbulence you see in these young men is a progress out of the rise of that generation. The next generation won't be like them. The gaps have closed."
Beck also believes that athletes will learn better how to deal with the off-field pressures that come with their jobs.
Toward this end, the league holds a seminar for its rookies every year. The symposium addresses many of the problems that may arise for young players. Included in the three-day seminar are tips on dealing with domestic situations and social situations that could turn violent. At the direction of the league, individual teams have implemented their own programs that, among other things, provide help for troubled players.
Al Smith just completed his second season as director of player development for the Tennessee Titans. The former Pro Bowl linebacker oversees programs designed to help players further their education and take charge of personal and professional matters.
He also is there for more serious problems.
"People have problems, whether they're athletes or reporters or what have you," said Smith. "If there's an avenue for them to get help, we try to show them."
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing coaches, teams and leagues is one that parents and teachers have faced for decades.
Sometimes, young people simply don't listen. And when they're young, talented and have lots of money, getting them to listen can be even more difficult.
"Sometimes," Smith said, "you have to go through the pitfalls."