Crossing the line?

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – Now that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has declared himself judge and jury when it comes to player conduct; now that athletes can get suspended from the league not just for being convicted of a crime but just suspected of some shenanigans, it was inevitable what JaMarcus Russell claimed happened to him this spring.

Russell, the LSU quarterback who may be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft this weekend, claimed Thursday that he had his every move followed for at least two weeks by a man – probably a private investigator – representing an NFL team.

This is according to a call from an NFL team source to Russell's uncle and mentor, Ray Russell. Attempts to reach Ray Russell were unsuccessful.

"My uncle got a phone call and [the source] let him know that they were watching me to make sure I had a clean nose," Russell said.

As the story goes, Russell was tailed 24-hours a day for weeks, from Baton Rouge, La., to his hometown of Mobile, Ala., and back, his every step watched, chronicled and, probably, recorded.

At first, Russell was skeptical of the story. But then his uncle told him all the places the NFL source claimed he had gone.

"What the guy said sure did happen that way," Russell said.

The sting of the quarterback was on. For all he knows, there was more than one PI. And for all the other top prospects know, they too were followed.

This is what it has come to for the NFL, where the league's big business has crossed with a new ethical direction that everyone is trying to figure out. This spring Goodell, in a show of force, instituted an Orwellian code of conduct that allows him to suspend players for off-field antics long before they get their day in actual court.

Using the political capital from media and fan outrage over a string of high-profile incidents – mostly from Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones and numerous Cincinnati Bengals – he ignored any constitutional reasoning and issued the following decree:

"It is not enough to simply avoid being found guilty of a crime … Persons who fail to live up to this standard of conduct are guilty of conduct detrimental and subject to discipline, even where the conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime."

To prove it, he suspended Jones for a season even though he hasn't been convicted of any crime since entering the NFL and hasn't even been charged with anything following his well-publicized presence during a February shooting outside a Las Vegas strip club.

Going with the theory that playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right, Goodell pushed this past a player's union that was unwilling to defend boorish miscreants. There has been much praise and little outcry against what Goodell did.

While draconian and doomed, at some point, to punish someone innocent, it is probably legal and difficult to get all that worked up about.

Regular people get fired from jobs for all sorts of mistakes they won't ever be prosecuted for – from petty theft, to drinking on the job, to personal use of a company computer.

So it is hard to shed a tear for Pacman and the guys. In terms of employee exploitation in America, the plight of the NFL player is at the bottom of the list.

But still, 24-hour-a-day surveillance?

Hiring a private eye to investigate a top prospect, one you may risk a valued draft pick and upwards to $30 million on, is not new in either the NFL or the NBA. They interview old coaches, old girlfriends, whomever they can find. If some kid happens to be a pot fiend, or have a gambling problem or a history of violence against women, a team understandably wants to know.

Players have sunk in the draft for undisclosed character issues for years.

But a complete surveillance detail might be new and might speak to the desperation teams face.

"I think they are going to investigate a guy as much as they could," Russell said. "It just let me know they are for real."

I asked Russell if during those couple of weeks he went anywhere good – and I didn't mean good such as church. I meant where a freshly minted 21-year-old with megastar status around campus might consider good … and a team might consider bad.

"Every time," he laughed.

He was joking, I think. He went on to say he had no concerns about his decisions during those weeks, that he has nothing to hide.

But what a standard he had to follow. What was the team (or teams) looking for? A trip to a campus bar? A pool hall? A sorority house? A visit with an old friend from back home who may be a little rough around the edges?

Imagine what would have happened to Joe Namath's draft status had they tailed him for a couple weeks back in the 1960s?

"I have to admit, it was a little strange, but it's OK," said Russell.

Of course, what else can he say? If he raised a complaint, it might cost him. And it's not like anything is going to change. The teams are just protecting themselves. It's better to waste thousands on a PI than millions on a bad guy. Essentially this is what the players have brought upon themselves.

By next year, of course, savvy agents will script their clients' entire day, probably even setting up feel-good moments, such as paying an old lady to conveniently be available to be walked across the street as the player heads off to read to the blind. It'll be all cat and mouse.

This year though, all Russell can do is hope they didn't catch him failing to recycle and keep talking about what an honor it will be to play in the National Football League.

And he's right, of course. He'll be rich and famous and fulfilling his dreams. It is an honor. If the worst thing that happens is some guys have to behave, well, that's the cost of doing business.

But that doesn't mean Roger Goodell's NFL isn't already starting to get a little bizarre.