Unsportsmanlike

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AUGUST 20, 2007

Unsportsmanlike

The chances that quarterback Michael Vick will be calling signals for the Atlanta Falcons this year seem pretty remote at this point. Several of his associates have now pled guilty to running a dog-fighting ring out of Vick's Virginia home. And as part of their plea agreements, they've said Vick both financed the operation and helped to run it, executing several dogs himself. Vick has maintained his innocence and could still stand trial. But it seems more likely that he'll reach his own plea agreement, in order to avoid facing even more serious charges, which federal prosecutors have threatened to bring.

One reason Vick would do this is to minimize his jail time. Sources close to the trial have said that, with a plea bargain, he might be able to get out after just one year--potentially clearing him to play football again. But would the National Football League let him return? That decision rests with Commissioner Roger Goodell. And Goodell has plenty of leeway. Under the league's conduct policy, which is particularly tough on offenses related to gambling, he could suspend Vick for longer than the jail term--or even for the rest of his life.

Whatever Goodell finally rules, you can be sure that he will also make stern-sounding statements about the league's determination to promote good off-field conduct. After all, that's what Goodell said a few weeks ago, after issuing suspensions to two players with their own histories of multiple arrests: Chris Henry, a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals; and Pacman Jones, a cornerback for the Tennessee Titans. "It is a privilege to represent the NFL, not a right," Goodell said. "These players and all members of our league have to make the right choices and decisions in their conduct on a consistent basis."

But how serious are statements like these, which officials with other leagues and their teams have echoed over the years? Based on conversations I've had with about a dozen former players, team officials, and consultants, it's fair to be skeptical. Both teams and leagues seem to enable player misconduct even as they publicly condemn it: by recruiting players with known character problems, looking the other way when those players get into trouble, and then intervening to spare them bad publicity or legal trouble after-the-fact. In some cases, that's meant assigning team personnel to watch over players and then clean up the messes they left behind--a role one of my experts likened to "the Wolf," Harvey Keitel's tux-clad cleaner character in Pulp Fiction.

Is it surprising that officials with the big leagues would act this way, given the enormous financial stake they have in their ability to field a successful team and market a wholesome product? I suppose not. But given all the self-congratulatory rhetoric about enforcing good conduct, it's certainly seems a little hypocritical.

 

Just to be clear, there's nothing new about athletes getting into off-field trouble. Ty Cobb was no saint, after all. Still, the environment in which athletes come of age seems to have changed, in ways that encourage poor conduct later on. It starts in college, if not before, where most schools with major sports programs now have special programs designed to facilitate athletes' easy passage through higher education. In theory, they help athletes cope with the difficulties that come with heavy practice and travel schedules, by offering tutoring and such. In practice, they frequently simply baby-sit players, doing whatever is necessary to maintain their eligibility.

"We had managers at Iowa State whose job it was to take players to class," says Paul Shirley, an NBA journeyman and author of Can I Keep My Jersey?, a newly-published memoir of his time playing basketball. "I mean physically drive to their apartment, put them in a car, drive them to class, wait for them, take them to the next class, and so on." And that may be a relatively benign example of what these support staff do. A few years ago, the University of Tennessee was rocked by scandal when a tenured professor suggested the athletic assistance department was basically doing the athletes homework--although the university, after investigating the matter, concluded the allegations were unfounded.

Sharon Stoll, a University of Idaho professor who has worked as a consultant to national sports organizations, says many college coaches don't mind such behavior. "They tell me, 'you don't know the expense and effort of recruiting them.'" As a result, even those athletes who go to college can leave with a sense that they aren't accountable for their own actions. As Stoll puts it, "If somebody is always there to make sure you don't pay a price, then what do you learn? You learn that you live by a different set of rules."

Needless to say, for those athletes who eventually make it to the pros, the combination of money and fame create myriad opportunities to exploit the situation. It's a problem both the teams and the leagues seem to grasp. The Yankees have employed an "intervention coordinator," who has worked with players like Dwight Gooden to help them overcome drug problems. And so many Dallas Cowboys got into legal trouble in the '90s that the team finally started its own orientation and assistance program for players. At the league level, both the NBA and NFL now hold special retreats, mandatory for rookies, dedicated to teaching new players how to run their lives and avoid trouble.

The programs may reflect some good intentions--and some players certainly benefit. But, as in college, the line between encouraging the athletes to act more responsibly and absolving them of responsibility for their actions is fuzzy. Most teams have their own security directors, who are responsible for protecting players off the field and, especially, on the road. But on many teams, the security directors (if not some other officials) are also the ones who advise the athletes on which limousine companies and strip club operators have the most discretion. "It turns out the guy isn't there for bomb threats," says Shirley. "He's there to make sure the players don't get into trouble."

Inevitably, some players get into trouble anyway. And extreme consequences rarely seem to result. Journalist Jeff Benedict has actually written two books on the subject. Their titles speak for themselves: Out of Bounds: Inside the NBA's Culture of Rape, Violence, and Crime; and Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL. In the NFL book, published in the late 1990s while Paul Tagliabue was still the league's commissioner, Benedict and a co-author found that more than 500 players had criminal records--including guilty pleas or convictions on such charges related as assault and sexual misconduct. As Benedict and his co-author note, "With [Tagliabue's] recent strong public stance against players' off-field deviance, one might wonder how many of the players in the authors' survey were kicked out of the league? None."

 

Vick's team, the Atlanta Falcons, seems to be a case study in how teams tolerate off-field trouble-- although it was a member of the team's personnel office, retired football star Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, who apparently drew the babysitting duty. In one memorable episode from 2004, widely reported at the time, two of Vick's traveling companions stole a watch from a Transportation Safety Administration worker. It was Johnson who eventually intervened, arranging to have the watch returned. (The TSA worker said Johnson tried to intimidate him and keep the incident from escalating into a legal battle; Johnson, who did not return calls for this story, said at the time that the TSA worker was trying to extort a large payment from Vick.)

Two years earlier, a judge had threatened to jail Vick when he twice failed to appear in court for a parking violation. According to press accounts, it was Johnson who eventually drove Vick to court--and then, afterwards, publicly defended Vick by saying the case was "bogus." In an article describing these episodes, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution referred to Johnson as Vick's "fixer."

In the end, nobody was able to "fix" Vick's dog-fighting mess--which is why he now faces not just jail time, but perhaps an extended suspension beyond that. The fact that Goodell is contemplating such a move is a hopeful sign that the league is getting more serious about player misconduct, as is his announcement of a new policy under which the league can take draft picks away from teams that condone it. Still, it's one thing to promise threaten consequences, quite another to impose them. And for far too long now, official promises to improve player behavior have been all talk and no action.

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