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Athletes should be policed well


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 2000

Check today's crime headlines. Scan police blotters. Any jock names? Any reason to wail, "Oh, no, not again?"

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Baseball players get into big trouble, so too basketball leapers and hockey smashers. Rap sheets for college athletes, sadly, are not rare. But it's the NFL that seems to generate the biggest, nastiest cases.

It can be sweet banter to suggest who might become the next Walter Payton, Joe Montana or Lee Roy Selmon, but we wince at wondering who could be the next Rae Carruth, Ray Lewis or Lawrence Taylor.

A blending of youth, ego, money, fame, alcohol, testosterone, drugs and arrogance are no less dangerous than striking matches while pumping gasoline. "We have to decide," said Bucs coach Tony Dungy, "what to do about people found guilty. Are we going to continue to give them opportunities?"

Sports franchises hire cops, snoops and psychologists, but keeping full rosters of athletes out of trouble is a challenge that seems most effectively calmed through upgrading character, recognizing pitfalls, enhancing peer pressure and adding a touch of fear.

For the first time, a crime prevention symposium is scheduled this summer for decisionmakers from the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and NCAA. They are to convene to assess ever-widening causes and to work in search of curbs, even cures.

"This whole business of one, two, three, four chances -- however many athletes are given now -- it makes a mockery of the system," said former NFL coach Ron Meyer, now a CNN/SI commentator. "Players must be held to higher standards."

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has accelerating interest. In Atlanta, at the Super Bowl in January, with former Carolina wide receiver Carruth already charged with plotting the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Tagliabue suggested, "We cannot predict what NFL players will do, any more than we can predict students shooting other students or workers shooting fellow workers."

A bit of a XXXIV brushoff.

That weekend, five minutes north of the bedecked Georgia Dome, linebacker Lewis from the Baltimore Ravens was charged in the murders of two men amid uptown Buckhead spiffiness. Two weeks later, Tagliabue huddled his New York staff, by then more serious about the problem.

Only the NFL, among America's major sports organizations, has an anti-crime policy. League spokesman Greg Aiello said even tougher measures may be implemented because of a flurry of more serious infractions.

With gifted athletes, problem seeds are planted early. They can be coddled as early as Little League, certainly in high school and to deeper degrees in college.

If they become pros, the mixture can take on quick wealth, fast cars, big houses, shady friends, harsher narcotics and a warped sense of entitlement if not effectively disciplined.

Sebastian Janikowski, a cosmic talent as placekicker for FSU's national football champions, moved to the United States from his native Poland as a teenager. He learned quickly about jock perks.

After a night-life encounter with Tallahassee police, Janikowski allegedly offered a bribe to an officer. He has pleaded innocent, but as a foreigner a conviction could lead to immigration hearings and possible deportment. But the Oakland Raiders, with a history of taking on assigned-risk players, made Sebastian a first-round draft pick. Making him rich. Stay tuned.

In football, aggression is all but mandatory. For most collegians and pros, it is considered as necessary a part of their package as size, speed and dexterity.

Debates widely vary on the level of difficulty for a football player in tuning down aggression once he leaves the arena, rolling onto city streets among everyday folks.

Tennessee Titans tight end Frank Wycheck told the Nashville Tennessean, "Sometimes, a fellow might have trouble separating the two. When you're on the field, it's so intense, so violent, that to do such things in real life would break laws."

Michael Strahan begs to differ. "Guys that I associate with (from the NFL) seem to be the nicest guys," the New York Giants defensive end told CNN. "So to say, "Can't turn off the aggression' is a cop-out."

Here is NFL policy:

Engaging in violent criminal activity is unacceptable and constitutes conduct detrimental to the integrity of and confidence in the National Football League.

Such activity has potentially tragic consequences for both the victim of the crime and the perpetrator. The league is committed to providing a safe workplace for its employees and will not tolerate conduct which endangers its employees or the general public.

There should be no less strict words drafted and enforced by every professional, collegiate and even high school sport, especially in games where combativeness is considered a prerequisite. Second and third chances must be considered carefully.

For every success story, where a troubled athlete transforms to well-corrected posture, like Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss, there are multiple and recurring flops such as Lawrence Phillips, Steve Howe and Cecil Collins.

Get tougher. It's serious. Can be deadly.

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