Strong Safety

Has the NFL gone too far trying to monitor players' off-field antics?

Players jeopardizing their team's chances of victory in the days, or even hours, leading up to the Super Bowl is as old and legendary as the grand tilt itself.

Take Green Bay's Max McGee, for example. Figuring he'd play nary a down behind starting wide receiver Boyd Dowler, McGee stayed out drinking all night before the very first Super Bowl in 1967, barely making the Packers' morning-of team breakfast. Dowler hurt himself on the second play after kickoff, forcing McGee to play the balance of the game. Against all odds, McGee rode his lingering buzz to seven catches for 138 yards, en route to a 35-10 shellacking of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Subsequent acts of Super Bowl debauchery have proven less fortuitous. There was Bengal fullback Stanley Wilson snorting his way through South Beach in 1989, and Falcon safety Eugene Robinson flagging down an undercover Coconut Grove cop for copulation in '99. And don't forget Atlanta and San Diego, which served as the backdrops for Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis' 2000 nightclub murder charge, and bipolar Raider Barret Robbins' pre-game disappearing act in 2003.

The regular season is not immune to such transgressions. Case in point: Anthony Hargrove's January 3 barroom brawl, which landed the Rams' defensive end in a St. Louis-area emergency room. Moreover, two October incidents — the Minnesota Vikings sex cruise and a Seattle nightclub brawl that hospitalized Seahawk safety Ken Hamlin — provide perfect examples of why professional clubs go to such great lengths to keep their players out of harm's way.

Toss in last week's domestic violence arrest of Seahawk offensive tackle Sean Locklear, and there's plenty of folly to fuel pro football's historically smoldering (Rae Carruth, Nate "The Herbivore" Newton, Darrell Russell, Lawrence Phillips, Michael Irvin, Todd Marinovich, Art Schlichter, et al.) fire.

Nowadays, each NFL team is supposed to contract with a security specialist — oftentimes an ex-FBI agent — who not only looks out for the players' physical well-being, but also performs background checks on associates and heads off potential off-field indiscretions by maintaining close ties with law enforcement officials and other key sources, among other clandestine duties (the Rams' ear to the ground is Carl Schultz of Fenton, an ex-FBI agent considered the dean of NFL security personnel).

"We've got the security people, and you know they have connections on the outside," says Atlanta Falcons cornerback Brandon Williams, a client of St. Louis-based agent Joe Hispkind. "They know people who know people who know you, so it's not hard for them to find out what they really want to find out."

Others are less conscious of the scope of the league's security detail.

"I really don't have much clue as to what goes on," says rookie Jacksonville offensive lineman Dan Connolly, a Southeast Missouri State alum who resides in St. Louis in the off-season. "But I do know that they look out for our well-being. They have meetings throughout the season just to educate us on finance and ways to protect ourselves from predators — people out to get our money."

"It has always been my assumption that the security hired by teams was strictly for our protection, and that most of them had a background in law enforcement," says ex-Green Bay offensive lineman Craig Heimburger, a Belleville East and Mizzou grad. "But I didn't know that any of them were former CIA or FBI agents."

Whether such vigilance is ethical is subject to debate among those well versed in employment issues.

"My question would be: To what degree are the players aware of this arrangement?" wonders Michael Harris, a professor of human resource management at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "If a player is informed, I really think it's in the player's best interest."

"Employers have the right to conduct surveillance on employees as long as they don't cross over into an invasion of their privacy rights," says Gregg Lemley, an employment attorney with Bryan Cave LLC in St. Louis. "For instance, you definitely couldn't break into someone's house and set a camera up. And if they're pulling strings to get private records, they could very well be running afoul of the law."

The league's efforts to uphold an upstanding public image have only intensified as salaries have skyrocketed. With many of their ranks attaining mega-celebrity status to match their astronomical wealth, pro athletes are perceived as potential targets — and not just by rogue packs of Cleveland coke slingers.

"Nowadays, pro athletes are so recognizable — their faces are plastered everywhere," says Kelly Davis, a Chicago police officer who provided security for ex-NBA wild man Dennis Rodman when he played for the Bulls. "There are guys who are good people who are put in bad situations and just don't know how to handle those situations. Guys will start a fight with a basketball player because they know that if he connects with a punch, they're going to sue."

Unlike Davis, whose job required him to stay in the hotel room adjacent to Rodman whenever the Worm invited a female companion to view the anatomical equivalent of his nickname, NFL security contractors are hesitant to elevate their role to that of nocturnal snoop. This is where provisions known as "conduct detrimental to the integrity of game" come into play, or loyalty clauses that contain language requiring an athlete to forfeit bonus money if he puts an embarrassing chink in the team's image.

The clause goes on to state that players can be fined, suspended or fired for gambling, narcotics or "any other form of conduct reasonably judged by the League Commissioner to be detrimental to the League or professional football."

But some teams don't stop at the status quo: Having been burned by Stanley Wilson's Miami coke binge and the outspokenness of wide receiver Carl Pickens, the Cincinnati Bengals are widely believed to have the strictest loyalty clause in all of football. It reads, in part: "If a Player makes any public comment to the media, including but not limited to the newspaper, magazines, television, radio or internet that breaches Player's obligation of loyalty to Club and/or undermines the public's respect for the Club, Club coaches or Club management...player shall forfeit and shall immediately return and refund to the Club that amount of the bonus herein provided as follows..."

"When you're dealing with a private employer, there is no First Amendment protection," says Lemley. "That being said, I think that clause is extremely vague. And sometimes, when a clause is that vague, a court will void it in its entirety. But there's nothing unlawful or improper about including such a clause."

St. Louis-based agent Joe Hipskind begs to differ.

"Why do we need these loyalty clauses in the first place?" he says. "Last time I checked, Tony Dungy has so much respect from his players that he doesn't need protection from a loyalty clause. I say that knowing there are some exceptions — Terrell Owens, for example. But what these clauses do is show the players that they're not to be trusted. It's an overly defensive gesture on the part of the teams. It builds walls between team management and players when you try to enforce these things, and that's why I don't like them."

Richard Berthelsen, general counsel for the National Football League Players Association, doesn't like them either. In 2001 the NFLPA tried unsuccessfully to strike loyalty clauses from contracts. Undaunted, the NFLPA is using its disdain for such clauses as a negotiation chit in its current efforts to hammer out a new collective-bargaining agreement with the league.

"That's on our list of demands: That clubs not be allowed to circumvent maximum disciplining conditions of the CBA through contract clauses tied to bonus money," says Berthelsen. "But once they're in the contracts, it's very difficult to overcome."

Club representatives, Berthelsen adds, say they have to be protected when giving out huge signing bonuses. "My answer is: 'Well, don't pay the signing bonuses' — knowing full well that they probably will."

[Editor's note: A more extensive version of this story can be found at espn.com.]

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