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Rookies get straight talk on conduct

It was, for those who run the NFL, an unpleasant yet unavoidable confrontation with reality.

No filters. No attempt to put on a happy face.

In addition to all of the overwhelming success the league continues to enjoy on and off the field, there is also the fact that some of its players have had well-publicized run-ins with the law. And in addressing the issue of player conduct with the 2001 draft picks assembled for the NFL's fifth annual Rookie Symposium, organizers were, to say the least, candid.

The hope is that a strong dose of "scared-straight" presentation now will help prevent trouble down the line.

As the rookies sat in their chairs in the main ballroom of the Lansdowne Resort, they saw a lengthy barrage of disturbing newspaper headlines flash on both of the large screens flanking the stage. There was no accompanying audio narration, only case after case of NFL players involved in crimes ranging from domestic abuse to murder.

After the final headline disappeared from the screen and the lights were turned up, a judge took the stage, wearing his black robe for dramatic effect. His name was Ed Newman, and although most of the audience was too young to remember, he once played in the NFL. After his 12-year career as an offensive guard for the Miami Dolphins (1973-1984), Newman went on to become a judge in Dade County (Fla.) Court.

He spoke about society's natural fascination with the transgressions of "the high and mighty."

"They're interested when people like you or me or all the politicians get caught up in scandal and disgrace," Newman said. "The fans read the papers and they hear the news. NFL players are larger than life, so that when one or two of us fall, people will generalize and they'll assume that all of us are players who behave badly.

"There are some detractors out there, and they think that football is a violent game and they think that, inherently, those who play football must be violent as well. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be thought of as or presumed to be a thug. I don't think you want that, either."

As Newman pointed out, there is increasing pressure on the NFL to show less tolerance with players who break the law, to hand out more and longer suspensions, if not lifetime bans.

Newman reminded the rookies that, when they were top athletes in high school and college, they were given a "different standard of behavior." When they did something wrong then, the authorities within their schools or communities often looked the other way.

"That time has changed, folks," Newman said. "We're in a new age: an age of responsibility. You have to understand that you're in the NFL now, and players are subject to certain trappings. People will be attracted to you. This is where the action is. And some of these people will bring trouble."

The rookies then watched two skits in which professional actors played out scenes depicting NFL players in situations that could easily put them on the wrong side of the law.

In one, a young quarterback, angry that a woman has rebuffed his advances at a bar, violently grabs for her arm.

In another, a player is on a cell phone, explaining to a male friend that he struck a female who has been his live-in companion for four years. He hangs up when she enters the room to inform him that she has contacted a lawyer and has learned that, under the laws of their state, she is considered his common-law wife. As they talk about ending the relationship and she raises the prospect of legally pursuing half of his earnings, the player becomes agitated, leading to another violent outburst.

After each skit, Newman explained the potential consequences facing the fictitious players. There were gasps of surprise when the rookies learned that the mere act of touching, in each incident, could bring a charge of battery. And a conviction of battery could bring a one-year prison sentence.

Newman's appearance was followed by a panel discussion on player conduct, only the second such session at the symposium. The first was last year in San Diego and featured a memorable dissertation from Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who was charged in a double murder that occurred after a post-Super Bowl party in Atlanta last year. He was absolved of the charges, and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for testimony against his co-defendants.

This year's panel included Cleveland Browns linebacker Jamir Miller, Washington Redskins running back Donnell Bennett, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Lew Bush, and former Washington Redskins quarterback and current ESPN NFL analyst Joe Theismann, who served as moderator.

"Everything that happens in society happens in our (football) world," Theismann told the rookies. "You've seen it: Drugs, alcohol … every temptation that you could possibly want to have in your life will be presented to you through the course of your career in the National Football League. And it is about choices and it is about decisions and is about consequences.

"We have the Darryl Henleys … We have the Rae Carruths … We have the trials."

Theismann's only regret about his appearance was that he didn't follow through on plans to give each rookie a T-shirt with a large bull's eye on it.

"Because now that you're a part of what I think is the greatest fraternity in the world," Theismann said, "You will become a target for anybody that's looking to better themselves and don't give a damn about you."

Bennett said the fear of his father's wrath helped keep him on the straight and narrow throughout his collegiate and pro careers. "My father was always a guy who said, 'Hey, if I've got to come up there and whip your behind, I'll be on the next flight,'" Bennett said. "People know that I had that fear, slash, respect for my father. So any time I would stray away from the things that I was supposed to be doing in any facet of my life, somebody would say, 'I'll call your father.'"

And what does a player do when he doesn't have such support available from his family?

"When you leave your house, your nest so to speak, it's important that when you get in an organization, you find the support groups," Bush said. "And you have to take advantage of things available, like your player-development staff. But you can't have fear that you don't want to talk with them. Don't wait until it's too late before you need help, like, 'Hey, I've got a DUI.' It's a little late for that then. When you've got a problem, approach them and let them give you the guidance."

"The first and most important thing that you have to understand when you're a part of the family of the National Football League, is you're never going to be alone," Theismann said. "But the questions you're going to have to answer and the decisions you're going to make are going to be ones where you have to ask for the help. You have to be willing to want to do something with your life.

"These (four) days here are not here to solve the problems if your life," Theismann added. "They're not to make sure that everything goes great for you. What they're for is to tell you that there are a lot of people who care. There are a lot of support systems out there, because you're in a business that's as tough as any business to be in. And the strong will survive."

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