June 27, 2013

NFL criminal cases put focus on vetting

The Associated Press

Two felony charges in one day were more than a bump in the NFL's offseason. They pointed to an ongoing problem for the league — players who wind up at the center of criminal cases.

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In this April 21, 2010 file photo, Indianapolis Colts' Bill Polian responds to a question during a news conference in Indianapolis. Polian, who built the Bills, Panthers and Colts into Super Bowl teams as one of the NFL's most successful general managers and team presidents, strongly maintains that the league's vetting process is solid. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

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Former New England Patriots football tight end Aaron Hernandez stands during a bail hearing in Fall River Superior Court Thursday, June 27, 2013 in Fall River, Mass. Hernandez, charged with murdering Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semi-pro football player, was denied bail. (AP Photo/Boston Herald, Ted Fitzgerald, Pool)

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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, it's 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.

"It's 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 in than 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. That's about half the arrest rate of the general 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.

But Jeff Benedict, author of several books on athletes and crimes, including "Pros and Cons, The Criminals Who Play In The NFL," believes the FBI statistics are a bad gauge.

"The danger of doing comparisons with the general public is, if you look at these people and their backgrounds, how many of those guys who have been arrested in the FBI numbers have been to college, make a lot of money like NFL players do, and live in safe, good neighborhoods?" Benedict says. "The issue is why any of these guys are doing this when they have all these good things going on in their lives."

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 players of its players have been arrested since last July 1, and Major League Baseball says it's aware of three cases this year worse than a speeding ticket: two DUIs and a misdemeanor drug charge.

While granting that NFL rosters are far bigger than those in the NBA or MLB, Benedict says, "You can't take these tiny snap shots and say the NFL is low."

Of course, even a few cases such as Hernandez's or that of Jovan Belcher — the Kansas City 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.

(Continued on page 2)

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