Two felony charges in one day were more than a bump in the NFLs offseason. They pointed to an ongoing problem for the league – players who wind up at the center of criminal cases.
Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested Wednesday in Massachusetts, accused of murdering his friend Odin Lloyd. Also Wednesday, Browns rookie linebacker Ausar Walcott was charged with attempted murder in New Jersey. Both players were cut later in the day by their teams. On Thursday, the league said any club that now wants to sign Hernandez will face a hearing with commissioner Roger Goodell first.
The question now is whether the veteran tight end and the rookie should have been in the league at all.
It is difficult, its always a balancing act, says Tony Dungy, who won a Super Bowl as Colts coach and has served as a mentor to players since leaving the NFL, including Michael Vick after the quarterback served federal prison time for dogfighting. The league has a security department that sends out information, and every team is different in terms of how much its scouting department does and what areas are concentrated on most.
Its really a matter of what you do with the information and what your organization feels is important. One thing you have to keep in mind is a lot of the (negative) things that happen come when they are 15 or 17 or 19 years old.
According to FBI statistics cited by the league, the incidence of NFL players getting arrested is much lower than in the general public. The average annual arrest rate of NFL players is roughly 2 percent of about 3,000 players who go through the league each year, including tryouts and minicamps. Thats about half the rate of the U.S. population, the league says.
The NFL notes the disparity becomes even more dramatic when the group is narrowed to American men ages 20-34.
The San Diego Union-Tribune, which has tracked NFL arrests more serious than speeding tickets dating back to 2000, has listed 36 this year, including Hernandez and Walcott and three players who were charged twice.
By comparison, the NBA says six of its players have been arrested since July 1, and Major League Baseball says its aware of three cases this year worse than a speeding ticket: two DUIs and a misdemeanor drug charge.
Of course, even a few cases such as Hernandezs or that of Jovan Belcher – the Chiefs player who shot his girlfriend to death last December, then committed suicide in front of his coach and general manager – can create a widespread negative image.
And anyone who has suited up for an NFL team will face extra public scrutiny for even minor offenses.
Dungy stresses that the amount of homework teams do is critical because they dont get much one-on-one time with prospective players. Some clubs do psychological analyses, even hiring outside agencies to handle them. Dungy is not a fan of that.
You have to find out if they have grown from the issues, or there seems to be a pattern, or will these issues always be there, he says.
Bill Polian, who built the Bills, Panthers and Colts into Super Bowl teams as one of the NFLs most successful general managers and team presidents, strongly maintains that the leagues vetting process is solid. It delves into players histories from high school and college.
Those investigations have become more sophisticated through the years; background checks include not only public records such as court documents and arrest data, but also conversations with teammates and coaches, high school principals and other people who have been a part of a players life and development.
It uncovers a fair amount of information, Polian says. It is not designed to uncover information that is usable in court, but it is a process by which the clubs try to ascertain a clear picture of the individual that they are thinking about taking.
But theres no way of knowing how playing football for a living will change a young man.
First of all, it is important to remember that no team is immune from having a player run afoul of the law, whether its a speeding ticket up to what we have seen in the Hernandez and Belcher cases, which are as serious as is possible to be, Polian says.
Theres no magic wand a team can wave and change that player who has had serious problems. Its no different than any other workplace in America, just more publicized.