June 27, 2013

NFL criminal cases put focus on vetting

The Associated Press

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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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And anyone who has suited up for an NFL team will face extra public scrutiny for even minor transgressions.

That, in turn, puts more pressure on the league's vetting process.

Dungy stresses that the amount of homework teams do is critical because they don't get all that much one-on-one time with prospective players. Some clubs do psychological analyses, even hiring outside agencies to handle them. Though others like the approach, Dungy is not a fan of it and always believed in his gut feeling about a player.

"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 NFL's most successful general managers and team presidents, strongly maintains that the league's vetting process is solid. It delves into players' histories from high school and college before they enter the league. Those investigations have become more sophisticated through the years; background checks include not only public records such as court documents and arrest data, but talking to teammates and coaches, high school principals and other people who have been a part of a player's 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 there's 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 it's 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.

"There's no magic wand a team can wave and change that player who has had serious problems. It's no different than any other workplace in America, just more publicized."

Benedict agrees that teams perform due diligence on draft prospects and they know what they are getting — or avoiding — in their draft rooms when it comes to skills or 40-meter dash times or health issues.

"The hardest thing they deal with on draft day is the character question," he says. "That is what keeps them up at night."

Former Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist says the vetting process wasn't particularly thorough for many of his years in the NFL — he left after the 2007 season — but he's certain it is more efficient now.

"I think Michael Vick was the turning point on the timeline," Sundquist says. "He was right in their backyard and they didn't know it was going on, an example of a team that had not had a handle on what players were doing."

Sundquist believes teams could get a better handle on developing problems by hiring security firms that are available around the clock to keep watch on players already in the league, even though the NFL's personal conduct policy is very direct in saying it expects "lawful, ethical and responsible" behavior.

"It's better to have a system in place that can monitor or check that guy, a security firm that is part of these guys' lives, not just vetting them," he says. "They are tied to the hip with these guys. I think that investment is well worth it."

Ultimately, if the public grows tired of player misconduct, regardless of the low percentages, it could become a huge problem for the NFL. And it could change how the teams approach player procurement.

"As these issues become a much more public situation in a business that relies upon the public for its goodwill," Polian says, "you are more and more concerned about taking chances on individuals — no matter what the talent — if they have problems in their background."

 

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