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NFL works on lingering poor image
By ERNEST HOOPER
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2001
TAMPA -- With the arrival of fans, media and celebrities, the Tampa Bay area is clearly abuzz about the NFL's showcase event. This is a time when the league's status as America's No. 1 sport cannot be questioned.
Yet the celebration has been tainted by headlines no one can boast about. In a striking contrast, the frivolity of Super Bowl week has shared the spotlight with the sobering court cases of former Carolina receiver Rae Carruth and former Green Bay tight end Mark Chmura.
On Monday in Charlotte, N.C., Carruth was sentenced to 19 to 24 years after being convicted on three of four charges in the death of his pregnant girlfriend, who was gunned down in her car in December of 1999.
Tuesday in Wisconsin, the trial of former Packers tight end Mark Chmura, charged with sexually assaulting his children's 17-year-old former babysitter during a drunken prom party, began.
Even some of the profiles of the Super Bowl participants have the stain of negativity. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who was present during a double killing outside an Atlanta night club after the Super Bowl last year, was charged with murder, but ended up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, has been one of the week's biggest stories. And quarterback Kerry Collins has been praised for leading the Giants to the Super Bowl after overcoming problems with alcohol.
Almost a year after NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue convened a special panel to examine the league's image problems, a negative perception remains.
"The off-field incidents have hurt the image of the league seriously and I think they've got to start doing something about it," said 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney, in town for the game. "I don't know what it is. I don't think you can have a litmus test as you would with a New York City cab driver -- who can't drive a cab if he has a criminal record -- but it ought to be apparent to the league which players do have a criminal record.
"They do not seem to be observing the same standards as people in other walks in life. The incidents of criminal behavior among players seems higher than among non-players."
Players and league officials argue that "seems" is the key word. NFL Players Association president Trace Armstrong said the perception is not the reality when you consider only a handful of the league's 1,600 players are creating the wrong kind of headlines.
"I know player conduct has been a hot topic this week, not just with Ray's situation but overall," Armstrong said. "Let's remember, we've been having the Super Bowl now for 35 years. ... (In that time) we've had less than a handful of incidents. When you look at player conduct as a whole given the magnitude of these events, I think it's been exemplary."
League officials, however, have gone beyond arguing these incidents are aberrations. Harold Henderson, executive vice president of the NFL Management Council, touts a number of preintervention programs that are beginning to have an impact. He said the league is constantly speaking to players about making good decisions, almost to the point of nagging.
"I think things are certainly better, but to be frank, they couldn't be much worse," Henderson said. "We certainly have had a lower incident rate in the last year. The two tragic cases kind of overshadow everything else, but it's really a very small number of players.
"Of course, we would like to have zero."
Players are becoming more vigilant because the league is helping them understand their unique position in society. Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said the lifestyle of NFL players -- instant wealth at a young age -- presents them with more than their share of temptations.
It is the advantages, however, that have some believing NFL players and other pro athletes should be held to a higher standard. Giants linebacker Micheal Barrow, a devout Christian, said his philosophy comes from the Bible.
"Much is given, so much is required," Barrow said. "I think everybody needs to live the same way and be held to a higher standard -- but because we're in the limelight, because people see our every move ... I know if I do something negative, it not only affects me and my family, but it could affect a lot of people who stand for the same thing I stand for."
Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett, however, argued that players should be no more accountable than people in other professions.
"The league itself is comprised of human beings and humans make mistakes," Burnett said. "Don't put us anywhere that you wouldn't put yourself or your neighbor because we're all the same."
Burnett said the trust he has in his teammates is immeasurable.
"I would let any of these guys stay in my house," Burnett said. "It's not like it's a bunch of thieves and arrogant animals. That's the media perception in a lot of ways."
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