Next week, in the Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, the NFL will hold its annual coming-out party, the league draft, a two-day ceremony in which 254 college players join the profession of their dreams. The news at the draft comes in fast waves, and everywhere you look, somebody has a phone stuck to his ear. A player might be talking with his mother, an agent with his still-undrafted client, a reporter with his editor. And a general manager might be talking with a former FBI agent who is holed up at the Marriott Marquis, 12 blocks away, surrounded by secret files filled with sensitive information about draft prospects.
The NFL has its own private investigation firm. It is called NFL Security, and it is rarely seen or spoken about. Unless you're intimately involved in the business of pro football, you probably don't know it exists. But if you're a college player looking to join the NFL, the security office knows you exist. A primary function of the 40-man force is to dig up facts about possible draftees. If a player smokes marijuana at Saturday-night parties, it's probably in his file. If he stays in bars until 2 a.m., it's probably in his file. If he brawls with neighbors, it's probably in his file. Investigators are particularly interested in the old stand-bys: illegal drugs, unsavory associations and sports gambling.
"We're providing a service to the employer," says Milt Ahlerich, who was hired as the NFL's director of security in January after 25 years at the FBI, succeeding Warren Welsh, another former FBI man, who retired after having held the post since 1980. "For the amount of money involved here, the employers would like to know good hard facts about their potential players. They deserve that. And we're going to get it to them."
The goal is not to prevent potential bad apples from entering the NFL—a talented player such as Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips (page 42) is going to get drafted even though he has been in trouble with the law—but rather to ensure that on draft day, teams are educated shoppers. "If a player buys a home for $1 million, he'd want to know that the hot-water heater works," says Charley Armey, director of college scouting for the New England Patriots, which, like the 29 other NFL teams, does its own investigating to augment the league's efforts. "That's what we're all doing."
The information is much appreciated. "I don't think you can overstate the value [of it]," says Miami Dolphins president Eddie Jones. "You can't afford to stumble. You can't afford to make a mistake."
During the 10 days before the draft, as many as three representatives of each team are permitted to sit in a 16th-floor office suite in the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters, sealed from the world by a double-locked door, and look at any prospect's file. The team representatives may not make copies, but they may take notes.
The team reps, which usually include the general manager, are also given the hottest number in football: a private access code that allows them, during the two days of the draft, to have prospects' files read to them over the phone. Because the draft is filled with surprises and teams often don't know who will be available until 15 minutes before their turn to pick, the security men in the Marriott Marquis take dozens of last-minute calls from general managers posing the same question: "Is this kid O.K.?"
Owners, general managers and coaches will tell you the league must conduct these player investigations so owners can protect their investments and the NFL can safeguard its image. Even on the nonmanagement side, there are players, union officials and agents who believe the league has a responsibility to provide an all-seeing eye. "I understand why they do it," says Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). "I do it myself when I'm hiring people here. I want to know more than what's on a résumé."
But NFL Security also has critics who accuse it of being too secretive and powerful. These critics claim there are inaccuracies in some of its investigative reports, misinformation that can cause a player to go lower in the draft and thereby lose millions in income. Because NFL Security does not let players see what's in their files or respond to damaging allegations the files might contain—in fact, NFL Security doesn't even talk to the prospects it investigates—some potential draftees and their agents feel a certain helplessness as they await draft day. "These guys [from NFL Security] are as secretive as the KGB and as mean as the Gestapo," says agent Drew Rosenhaus in a burst of overstatement.
Rosenhaus claims that one of his clients, defensive lineman Warren Sapp of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was the victim of a flawed NFL Security report last spring. At the time, Sapp had just concluded a brilliant college career at Miami. He was expected to be a top-five pick in the draft.