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On the field, it's been a great year for the NFL: lots of scoring, intriguing storylines and two rivalry games in the conference championship round. Off the field, it's been awful. From the Aaron Hernandez murder charge to the Miami Dolphins' bullying controversy to disturbing behavior from current and former players, football culture has been under heavy scrutiny.
Now, with a record number of early enrollees into the 2014 draft, there's more pressure on the NFL to prevent the next bad situation from happening.
Troy Vincent, the former player who now leads the league's department of player engagement, is developing an "Early Intervention Program" that aims to "reduce future conduct issues through establishing a process … where conduct standards are communicated to prospective pre-Draft NFL players," according to a proposal on the project.
Specifically, the program would be designed to educate and assist new players who have had prior run-ins with the law.
"When a player has issues with firearms, domestic violence, felony arrests, or DUIs, his impact as an athlete and as a citizen is minimized and his risks are maximized," Vincent said. "We want to reverse that so he can be a productive member of his team as a player and to society long after his playing experience."
Although the NFL rookie symposium, held every June, is meant to educate all incoming players, Vincent wants this program to be more intensive, more immediate, and more geared to draft picks and undrafted free agents who need it most.
"We are not attempting to punish at all," Vincent said. "We are seeking to establish employment standards and provide a path to those who struggle with unacceptable challenges so that they might be successful."
The program is still in its initial stages and there are plenty of questions facing Vincent and his department. First, will the program be mandatory? If the answer is no, it may not enlist the players who truly need it. If the answer is yes, it will have to get the buy-in from the players' union. "We want to engage all parties," Vincent said.
On Thursday in New York, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith spoke at a news conference about the need to "reach back" to players before they become pros. He suggested a mandatory amount of hours in "financial literacy" for draft prospects. So there is common ground. But Vincent's program might be perceived as singling out those who come to the league with prior troubles. He will have to fight the idea that the program will be viewed as a scarlet letter even though it's meant to remove that stigma.
Still, some players may not feel they need help. Other players (and their agents) could see Vincent's program as a threat to both draft status and paychecks. Vincent, however, could argue that the risk is there as soon as a player gets into trouble with the law.
"His draft stock is impacted by the risk," he said. "If he is mitigating risk through this program, he has demonstrated that he is serious about moving on."
To that end, some agents might regard the program as useful and perhaps necessary. Player representatives are often viewed as hired only to make money, but many are worried about the long-term welfare (and earning power) of their clients. "Once they get to the pros, they can listen to whomever they want," said one agent, who asked not to be named. "It might be very helpful to have two or three places sending the same message instead of just one."
Entry into the NFL is life-altering, with young men just out of college suddenly becoming rich and famous. They can afford more of any vices that may have caused them trouble in the past, and the feeling of being drafted is often one of freedom rather than responsibility. Yet rookie year conduct problems such as DUIs will immediately become headlines that will be held against players by fans and coaches, where missteps might be more easily forgiven in high school and college. Too often, Vincent said, a player's talent overrides concerns with behavior.
"We want to do right," Vincent says. "We want to give the athlete a chance. But we forget the long-term effects of what took place in the past. We never address the core issue. We enable."
Over the last several years, dozens of athletes with troubling patterns of behavior have faltered badly after getting to the NFL. Hernandez is the most glaring example, but there have been others. Jaguars wide receiver Justin Blackmon got a DUI only weeks after getting drafted in 2012, and missed most of the 2013 campaign for multiple violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy. If Vincent's program were in place, Blackmon could theoretically have entered it before he was arrested in 2012. Instead, Blackmon went to a new city filled with plenty of fans and critics. And when he was suspended for the remainder of the '13 season, he was cut off from all the NFL personnel who were dedicated to helping him. His future is now unclear at best.
Blackmon provides an example of self-harm, but Vincent is also aware of the effect a troubled player can have on teammates and the community at large. Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent, who had a DUI conviction in college, drove his friend and teammate Jerry Brown home from a nightclub after drinking and got into an accident that killed his friend. Brent was convicted last week for intoxication manslaughter and is now out of football. Former Detroit Lions receiver Titus Young came into the league with issues the league knew about, and he ended up punching a teammate before being cut and subsequently arrested twice in one day last May in California. Then there's the case of Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito, who had trouble with teammates and the law before coming to the NFL, and then was suspended for his role in the bullying controversy that embroiled the entire Miami organization this season.
"Just take a snapshot of the last 12 months," Vincent says. "What have we done and what could we have done?"
If the NFL shows would-be draftees that their conduct problems will have to be addressed before training camp, it might serve as a deterrent to poor behavior in college.
Could Vincent's program have helped someone like Aaron Hernandez? It's hard to say. An entire adolescence and young adulthood of bad behavior isn't erased or addressed quickly. But if even one player is helped, a program like Vincent's is a positive step for a league that desperately needs to take one.
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