In NFL, few bad apples still spoiling the bunch

The NFL a year ago was immersed in player conduct. It turned to football authorities and societal scholars to explain a string of troubled players. A fast-tracked sketch was being slapped on players -- they were becoming gun-toting, drug-using, law-breaking scoundrels.

Few noted that of the more than 2,400 players on rosters during the offseason and the more than 1,600 on rosters during the season, the majority were clean, community-involved men. Nor that the bulk was embarrassed by the few.

Such is the burden for a multi-billion industry where America remains glued to its every twitch.

Thus, commissioner Roger Goodell formed a players' advisory council on conduct. The players' union contributed ideas. Goodell enhanced the player conduct policy. Teams fortified their player development programs. The league's annual rookie symposium became an explicit forum for conduct.

Familiar questions, though, arise.

Seven NFL players in the last month have dealt with an assortment of charges including animal neglect, destruction of property, driving under the influence and disorderly conduct.

Two players –- Cedric Wilson (Pittsburgh) and Chris Henry (Cincinnati) -– were cut recently by their teams after assault charges.

Is the conduct policy working?

"My point of view is the policy is working extremely well," Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian said. "It was the final piece in something the league had long been working on under Paul Tagliabue. Roger Goodell recognized rightly that we needed to be a little more aggressive in enforcing our policies.

"We all need to keep historical perspective and context. There is a difference between cultural attitudes in some parts of the country and the breaking of the law. I come from the Northeast. If a guy goes out and drinks one too many beers, that, alone, is not a terrible offense unless there is a pattern that makes it bad behavior. In other parts of the country that is not a view that would be accepted. We are bound by mores in parts of America. Now, everybody knows you have to obey the law. There is no question there. A totally different thing."

The type of thing that causes Goodell to crack his whip. And NFL owners feel the pressure to do the same.

"We are under the microscope," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "People are looking at us from outside the league. Whether you like it or not, we are representing cities as much as organizations. The commissioner's tolerance level is lower. This makes it easier for coaches. I guarantee you, it is only going to get better. This is serious. It is something ownership is not going to put up with. It all goes back to protecting the shield."

The league said last month that there was a 20 percent reduction in player incidents from early April to late December of 2007 compared to the same period a year prior.

But that success was clouded by the conviction of Michael Vick on dog-fighting charges and the year-long suspension of Pacman Jones for an assortment of illegal dalliances.

Such high-profile players and cases have often dwarfed the overall successes in player conduct.

There will never be a sports league that is devoid of player conduct issues.

The NFL included.

I believe we are very much in the early part of this policy/conduct cycle where the league is weeding out the guys who simply do not get it. That can be distasteful and sensational. But necessary.

"I think it's going just the opposite when people say it is not working," Shanahan said. "All players have to see is more players suspended by the league and owners. Players see that and say, 'Hey, they have a policy with some teeth.' They see that if you don't believe in it and do it, you will be gone. We're sort of in a period where some guys are just going to hang themselves out there. And they'll be gone."

Cincinnati, unfairly, has become the team and franchise saddled as the place for prime, boorish player behavior.

Other teams and franchises have suffered player conduct setbacks as painful as Cincinnati's. But the Bengals get the ugly label. They get the nasty jokes.

This mystifies and miffs Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.

But even Lewis understands the pall receiver Chris Henry cast on the franchise with his fifth arrest as a Bengal -- the latest last week on assault charges -- that prompted the Bengals to cut him.

"Nothing happened to Chris different than what I expected," Lewis said. "We weren't counting on Chris Henry. I knew it was only a certain amount of time. We were able now to do what I had hoped to do a long time ago -– move on. It's not fair to look at Chris Henry and say that reflects on our league. People say those guys make millions of dollars and so and so. Well, Chris Henry did not make millions of dollars, but he screwed it up anyway. Everybody tried to help him. Many, many hours, beyond belief, were spent by people trying to help him. He could not separate himself from people always leading him to the mud.

"A mistake was made three years ago. We are still paying for that mistake. I don't want us to be known for that. I don't want us to continue to pay that price. I hate that part of this. I don't want to be a part of that. You make errors, you pay for it."

The player. The team. The franchise. The city. The game.

This understanding seems to be entrenched now across the league as clubs prepare for the draft. They are projecting talent. Many of them, equally, are projecting character. Lewis said players are falling in this draft at torpedo speed due to character.

"It's easy to do," Lewis said about finding talented, character-driven players. "We know how to do it. Everybody does. Teams are aware of the players with questionable character. Now, there is a commitment more than ever to walk very carefully there. The commissioner's policy is excellent. What's coming from that office is a higher standard. Punishment is swift."

And the trickle-down effect is powerful.

"There is a new generation, in effect, in our league every four years," Polian said. "Certainly, we need to send the message of conduct to those players and coaches. Beyond that, the league's measures have gotten enough publicity and filtered down to the college and high school level. They are recognizing this need for good citizens and law-abiding citizens. I've heard from them on both levels. The league has. They are talking about how the commissioner's stance has paid dividends for them. And I am confident we will see these elements take effect in this year's draft."

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