ATLANTA – As the Atlanta Falcons were putting the finishing touches on a six-year, $50 million contract extension with Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White(notes) in August, there was one key issue the team had to address.
The stipulation didn't go in writing, but an understanding had to be reached. For a club still dealing with the aftermath of the Michael Vick(notes) fiasco, there was something that had to be established before White was going to get $18 million guaranteed.
Ultimately, White had to put some distance between himself and his childhood buddies from South Carolina. Three of the guys living with White at the time and several others who had lived with White throughout his first four years in Atlanta, well, bottom line, they had to go. They could still be friends, no doubt. But there had to be a separation of friendship and business.
White was already on the way to that conclusion. The additional push from the Falcons simply helped solidify the idea.
"We talked about it and it was like, 'Hey, you're going to have to do something about this' and I said, 'I know,' " said White, who has become one of the league's top deep threats over the past two years and is on his way to his third consecutive 1,000-yard season. "But me and my [girlfriend], we had been talking about it already by then. She and I said, 'Hey, you got to move on from stuff eventually. You got to move on from stuff you used to do. You're at a different stature now. You're going to be looked at as not that person you used to be, you're one of the elite players of this league. You can't go sneaking around and doing the things you used to do and get away with.'
"Basically, that's what I did, took that move and just kind of moved them away from me."
While White might have already been contemplating change, his decision was accelerated after the Falcons did background checks on his friends. And though he has no history of character problems, four of his friends had what one source called "troubled" backgrounds and/or have illustrated irresponsible behavior that the team believed could eventually lead to trouble for White. In fact, as Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver detailed in December 2008, White's off-field lifestyle contributed to him underachieving in his first two years with the Falcons.
"I maintain that in the history of the NFL and given [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell's conduct policy, it has never been more important to be proactive and cognizant of character issues and concerns," Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "This isn't about getting angelic people into the NFL, but getting people who buy into what we want as an organization."
As Vick returns to Atlanta this Sunday as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, the tale of White and the Falcons is not exactly new. Teams constantly do security checks on players, from before they are drafted to different points in their careers. The difference, in this situation, is that the Falcons took it one step further.
All the buddies from the past who were still hanging out with White got a thorough once over as well. Unlike with Vick, who funded a dogfighting operation he ran with his childhood friends and eventually ended up serving close to a two-year federal prison sentence, the Falcons weren't going to let a player's past get in the way of the team's future.
And to the credit of White, 28, he recognized that supporting a bunch of friends had worn thin.
"It was like I was the parent," White said. "When you go out, they go out. When you go eat, they eat. It seems like [you're] always carrying somebody with you and sometimes you just want to go by yourself, you know. But you gotta take everybody with you and that's like a big thing. It's like $300 or $400 every time to go out to eat with six people.
"It's a huge amount of responsibility. You always gotta make sure the right thing is going on, that everybody has their head on their shoulders right. You just don't want anything to go wrong. You don't want anybody getting in a fight. You don't want anybody getting raped at your house. You don't want anything going wrong. You gotta make sure everybody is on the same page, which is tough because everybody butts heads once in a while."
The stance taken by Atlanta regarding White is not isolated. In fact, several agents and team executives said that there have been at least three other situations since the Vick situation blew up in 2007 where teams have put unwritten conditions on players before signing them to large contracts.
While it's hard to argue with the stance, especially considering a federal appeals court ruled last month that the Falcons can't recoup nearly $16 million in signing bonus paid to Vick, there is a deeper issue: Just exactly how much can a team – or any employer – dictate a player's life? Where is the boundary?
"It's treading the line, but I wouldn't say it's over the line," said New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith(notes), a six-year veteran and former first-round pick who signed a six-year, $70 million contract extension in 2008. "When a team gives you a big contract, they want to secure their investment. It's like taking out a loan from the bank. The bank wants some security."
Other players, such as Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday(notes), who is the team's NFL Players Association representative, and former longtime NFLPA player rep Matt Stover(notes), agreed with the notion that teams have certain rights.
"If the player doesn't like those conditions, he doesn't have to sign the contract," Saturday said.
"I've bought businesses myself and when you do that, there are key people in those businesses that you want to make sure understand the responsibilities of what you want," said Stover, now with the Colts. "It's not just because you want the business to succeed, it's because those people represent you, too. That's your reputation on the line."
Even so, there is some sense that players and people, in general, need to have the freedom to make those decisions on their own.
"That's tough," Indianapolis wide receiver Reggie Wayne(notes) said. "That's like me saying, 'Hey, we're going to be homies, but you got to leave your wife.' Let him grow up on his own. I know it's an investment at the team's end, but I don't agree with that. You gotta let him make a decision.
White expresses himself following Vick's sentencing in December 2007.
(John Amis/AP Photo)
"Hey, I was a baller when I had these friends, so what's the problem? Yeah [as with the Vick situation], you see people make mistakes. To me, that should make a light bulb go off in your head that you have to watch that stuff. But who's to say that your new friends you get after the old ones leave are going to be any better? Who says they're going to be holy angels."
Fair point, but in the aftermath of the Vick situation, teams are clearly concerned. Throw in the constant problems of former NFL cornerback Pacman Jones and his collection of friends, and even the alleged rape that took place at the Atlanta home of Seattle Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney(notes) in 2007 and the concern gets amplified.
At the same time, those friends provide a certain security and comfort for White and other players in similar situations.
"It's tough because being around those guys, you feel comfortable," said White, who has already tied his career high of seven touchdown receptions. "You're in your comfort zone and they make you feel at ease. You're not worried about the next person touching you or coming up to say something to you that's wrong. They move in and stop that stuff before it happens."
Eventually, however, those ties had to be cut and White said he realized it.
"That was my biggest thing. I was like, 'Man, what you guys going to do, just stay around here until you're all 40? You gotta find something to do. You can't be 40 years old just hanging around with me all your life.'
"That was a big turning point for the whole thing, me sitting there saying, what you going to do 'cause I know what I'm going to do.
"You only get to go around this thing once, so you don't want to mess it up. You don't want your friends to mess it up for your future, financially and as a football player. … You have to get yourself through that and concentrate on football because, in all actuality, this is our job. People don't look at it like that, but that's what it is. This is how I pay the bills."