Misconduct is still big issue in NFL

By Brent Schrotenboer
Updated: April 12, 2009

SAN DIEGO – Since the NFL cracked down on player misconduct in April 2007, no team has had more incidents than Jacksonville. 13 Jaguars have been arrested or received major citations in the past two years.

That’s part of the reason the team overhauled its front office after last season, promoting longtime employee Gene Smith to general manager and giving him final say in personnel matters along with owner Wayne Weaver.

Smith promised a stronger emphasis on character.

“Sometimes in player personnel, especially if you haven’t coached, you can be a little cavalier and say, ‘Yes, let’s take this guy.’ ” Smith said.

He said his goal was to have players whom kids “can look up to.”

The Jaguars case is another reminder of how character issues remain a focus for the league, so much so that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell toughened his policy in August.

The NFL started requiring teams to pay the league a portion of the salaries forfeited by players suspended for violating its policies regarding personal conduct, substance abuse or performance-enhancing drugs.

This starts with a team’s second player suspension in a calendar year. In essence, it’s a fine for organizations with multiple-problem players.

To gauge the policy’s effectiveness, The San Diego Union-Tribune updated its compilation of player arrests and major citations since 2000, something it has done each year since the list was first published in April 2007. Using public records and media reports, the Union-Tribune tracked 451 such incidents since 2000.

In the past 12 months, the NFL has had 61 incidents, down slightly from the previous 12 months (65 from April 2007-April 2008).

However, those annual totals show 20 percent fewer incidents compared to the 79 the year before Goodell started his crackdown.

After Jacksonville, the team with the most incidents was the Denver Broncos, who had nine, followed by the New York Giants with seven, including five since June.

The Chargers have had only three public incidents in the past two years, all of which are still pending legally. That’s down from eight in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys have had just one arrest since Goodell strengthened the personal conduct policy, even after acquiring three of the league’s biggest poster boys for trouble off the field – Adam “Pacman” Jones, Tank Johnson and Gerald Sensabaugh. The three had combined for 13 arrests and major citations since 2005 before joining the Cowboys.

How to explain it?

“It’s not something we think we have all the answers for any more than anyone else in the league,” Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple said.

‘They should think twice’

League spokesman Greg Aiello said Goodell toughened the conduct policy because he wanted to hold teams accountable as well.

“Maybe they should think twice about bringing in a player who has conduct issues because of the very negative impact it has on the entire league, not just that club,” Aiello said.

Since August, Goodell has suspended 12 players under the policy.

The latest came this week when the NFL suspended Buffalo running back Marshawn Lynch for three games after he pleaded guilty in the past year to a misdemeanor gun charge and another charge stemming from a hit-and-run accident. Before his suspension, Lynch said Goodell told him “he will not tolerate any more screw-ups by me.”

Ironically, the Cowboys were the first team fined under this policy despite having only one arrest since April 2007 and just eight since 2000. (Minnesota and Cincinnati lead the league since then with at least 29 each).

After serving his season-long suspension in 2007, Jones signed with the Cowboys. To protect its investment, the team assigned bodyguards to Jones to help keep him out of trouble.

Jones then got into a scuffle with one of them last October, leading to another six-game suspension. He was not arrested. But the Cowboys paid for it because it was their second player suspension of the year after the steroids-related suspension of receiver Mike Jefferson.

Aiello said about $130,000 has been collected in such fines from “two or three” teams, though he declined to say which ones. “It serves as an incentive for clubs to do whatever they can to support player conduct,” he said.

America’s clean team?

Not long ago, the Cowboys had other embarrassing issues. Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin was arrested on charges of cocaine possession in 1996. Cornerback Dwayne Goodrich was sentenced to 12 years in prison for a hit-and-run that killed two men in 2003.

But their recent record is almost spotless except for Jones. Tank Johnson, who was arrested four times with the Bears, even played for the Cowboys without incident last season before recently signing with Cincinnati.

Johnson’s agent, Jerrold Colton, said his client made a decision to “grow up” after his eight-game suspension in 2007. Colton also said the Cowboys’approach helps.

Unlike many teams, Dallas has a full-time psychologist, Jacqui Stephens, who has an office next to the locker room. This makes her more accessible for players than part-time psychologists that many other teams use.

Additionally, team owner Jerry Jones is famously more hands-on when it comes to operating the team and acquiring talent. He said he was willing to take a little more risk on players with problem backgrounds if their issues are not related to substance abuse. “Those things are more difficult to overcome than having made a couple mistakes,” a Cowboys official said.

Tank Johnson and Sensabaugh, who signed with Dallas last month, fit that bill. “Some teams are much more firm in invoking rules and policies than others,” Colton said. “Some of it has to do with geographical region. How they’re treated by police. That’s a factor. Some of it might be dumb luck too.”

For example, Colton asked, “Is it the Giants’ fault (receiver) Plaxico Burress walks into a bar with a gun?

“Not necessarily. But at the same time not every team would have brought him in.”

Burress accidentally shot himself at a New York club last year. He previously had two alcohol-related incidents with Pittsburgh.

The biggest problems

Drunken driving and repeat offenders remain the NFL’s biggest off-field problems. Of the 451 incidents since 2000, 128 are related to drunken-driving (28 percent), including an incident this month in which Cleveland receiver Donte Stallworth was charged with striking and killing a pedestrian. Of the 451 incidents, 190 (42 percent) were committed by 76 players.

To combat this, about 75 percent of teams have adopted a ride-home program for players who have been drinking, up substantially in recent years. To address repeat offenders, Goodell’s policy can punish players even if they are not found guilty of a crime. Several teams also have cut many players within days after being arrested, before they’ve had their day in court.

But it often has affected lesser talented players whom teams think they can do without.

Talent still trumps character in many cases. Last year, the Bengals released receiver Chris Henry after his sixth arrest or major citation since December 2005.

At the time, Bengals President Mike Brown said Henry “forfeited his opportunity to pursue a career with the Bengals.” A few months later Brown changed his mind and signed him to a two-year deal.

Aiello, the NFL spokesman, said the revised policy “clearly had an impact” but stressed it’s “always going to be a work in progress.”

“It’s something you have to continue to emphasize and work at,” he said.

It already has started in Jacksonville. Shortly after Smith took over as the new GM, the Jaguars cut or declined to re-sign five players who had brushes with the law in the past two years.

They included receiver Matt Jones, who was arrested twice on drug-related charges, and safety Sensabaugh, who has been arrested three times since March 2007 on gun and traffic charges.

Of the 11 Jaguars who were arrested or charged with crimes a combined 13 times since April 2007, only one remains on the roster.

The following figures are based on 451 NFL player arrests or major citations compiled since 2000.

Most incidents by position:

>Defensive backs: 111

>Wide receivers: 79

>Running back: 53

Fewest incidents by position:

>Kickers/punters: 9

>Quarterbacks: 11

>Offensive line: 49

Teams with most incidents since 2000:

>Minnesota: 29

>Cincinnati: 29

>Jacksonville: 25

Teams with fewest incidents since 2000:

>St. Louis/Philadelphia: 6

Since the NFL toughened the personal conduct policy in April 2007, 12 players have been suspended (with number of games):

>–Buffalo RB Marshawn Lynch (3)

>–Denver WR Brandon Marshall (1) –Minnesota OL Bryant McKinnie (4)

>–Miami DL Fred Evans (2)

>–Tennessee/Dallas CB Pacman Jones (22)

>–Atlanta QB Michael Vick (indefinite)

>–Chicago DL Tank Johnson (8)

>–Tennessee LB Robert Reynolds (2)

>–Cincinnati WR Chris Henry (12)

>–Kansas City RB Larry Johnson (1)

>–Seattle DL Rocky Bernard (1)

>–Oakland CB Fabian Washington (1)

Of 451 incidents since 2000, 128 were drunken-driving charges. Most common NFL charges:

>DUIs – 28 percent

>Disorderly conduct/assaults/fighting: 21 percent

>Domestic violence-related: 15 percent

>Drug-related: 13 percent

>Gun-related: 8 percent

Of the 451 incidents, the Union-Tribune could find legal resolutions to 354. Many of the others are still pending. Of those resolved:

>67 percent: Convictions, plea deals, diversion programs.

>27 percent: Dropped without penalty

>6 percent: Acquitted

The NFL still is better behaved than American society:

>NFL: roughly one arrest per 47 players per year since 2000, including injured reserve lists, according to the database.

>U.S. population: one arrest per 21 people per year (around 4,800 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants), according to the FBI.

Note: The Union-Tribune reviewed hundreds of news reports and public records since 2000 to compile an unofficial list of 451 arrests or major citations. The list cannot be considered comprehensive in part because some incidents may not have been reported. Increased media coverage of incidents also probably accounts for more incidents listed in recent years. The list includes players who were in the league at the time of their arrests, including practice squads and players on injured reserve.

>Like the NFL rate, the FBI rate counts one arrest for each separate instance in which a person is arrested, cited, or summoned for an offense. Statistically, the best comparison is with a similar peer group. In the NFL’s case, this generally would be males under 33 with some college making six-figure salaries. However, such specific data does not exist for comparison in society.