Work in Sports
'It's getting out of hand'
Violent crimes by NFL players worry league observers
Posted: Saturday February 05, 2000 06:01 PM
BALTIMORE (AP) -- The NFL used to spend most of the offseason pondering such problems as the length of games, the shifting of franchises or the proper use of TV replay.
Now, perhaps more than ever, off-the-field violence is troubling the league.
Two players are in jail on murder charges. Many others have been charged with less-serious crimes this season, including assault, burglary, and weapons and drug possession.
"I've been part of this league for 40 years and I just can't ever remember so many cases of a criminal nature," Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson said. "It's getting out of hand."
The cases have battered the image of a stuffy institution that some derisively refer to as "The National Felony League."
Earlier this season, Carolina wide receiver Rae Carruth was arrested on murder charges in the shooting of his pregnant girlfriend.
While such charges against two players in the same season were unprecedented, the league has always had to deal with off-the-field violence and crime. In fact, all NFL teams already offer a series of lectures on personal conduct throughout the season.
The recent cases, however, highlight what seems to be a trend.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue acknowledged the problem two days before the Super Bowl, but added, "We can't predict what NFL players will do any more than we can predict students shooting other students or workers shooting fellow workers."
Athletes, however, receive much more money and adulation than the average student or mailman. While the majority of football stars cope well in such an environment, others do not.
"For some players, you get all that money and you're like a time-bomb waiting to go off," said Lew Lyon, a sports psychologist who works out of Baltimore's Good Samaritan Hospital. "You grow up getting special treatment because you're an athlete, then you get millions of dollars thrown at you. Shady people gravitate toward money."
The NFL's season of crime and punishment has produced damaging headlines around the country and provided late-night comedians with more than enough material for their opening monologues.
Hardly a week went by this season without news of another player in trouble with the law.
Two players on the Bills were charged in the sexual assault of two off-duty police officers in a nightclub; Denver Broncos safety Darrius Johnson was charged with punching a topless dancer; and New York Jets offensive tackle Jumbo Elliott was charged with punching a man and woman at a bar.
Indianapolis Colts defensive back Steve Muhammad is charged with battery in the beating of his pregnant wife, but was cleared of being involved in her death after it was attruibuted to injuries suffered in an auto accident. The baby was stillborn.
His teammate, Carruth, was cut by Carolina soon after his arrest, and Miami Dolphins running back Cecil Collins was suspended indefinitely after being arrested in connection with a break-in at a neighbor's apartment. The married woman living there said Collins had been stalking her.
The Ravens aren't sure if they'll ever again be able to use Lewis, who led the team in tackles in four straight seasons and was supposed to play in his third Pro Bowl this weekend.
His lawyer, Ed Garland, said Lewis was simply a 'horrified bystander' who didn't know the two men had been killed until he heard about it on the news hours later. But some wonder why a man with a $26 million contract put himself in such a position in the first place.
"Ray Lewis got caught up in the big party," Lyon said. "The tragedy of Ray Lewis is that he put himself in harm's way."
Beginning in April, the Ravens held a seven-part lecture series on personal conduct for players. Topics included personal and professional accountability, male/female issues and drug counseling.
"Such programs can help, but in most cases it's like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound," Lyon said. "You're talking about a person who has high self-worth and a lot of money. He's not going to listen. He's thinking, 'This won't happen to me.'"
Wilson said the NFL needs to do more than merely instruct players on how to deal with fame and fortune.
"Because of the acceleration of these cases, the league has to take a harder approach. We've been far too soft," Wilson said. "It's something I think we'll talk about at the next owners meeting."
Often a players' time in the 40-yard dash is more important than his rap sheet. Wilson said he will no longer take a chance on a player with a criminal past.
"I'm just as guilty as anybody," he said, "but I think our emphasis on winning has taken away from our common sense."