The developments of this past week concerning the murder charge against the New England Patriot’s Aaron Hernandez have many in the media asking about the vetting process of NFL prospects and the need for improvement in ensuring better background checks. The Football Educator has already participated in about half a dozen interviews looking for flaws in the process and perhaps something the Patriots front office could have done to see this coming.
Checking the boxes
Coincidentally the annual NFL Rookie Symposium was also being held to indoctrinate this year’s class of incoming talent to the “do’s & don’ts” of professional football. The NFL fully understands the importance of “image” in the branding of its product. Perhaps no other statistical category tracking NFL players brings as much disdainful attention upon the League than the “days without an arrest” tally. The NFL is mindful of its audience and has done quite a bit in the past few years to implement programs aimed at guiding and educating its employees (the players).
Babysitting or winning?
But these programs only go so far once the last speaker steps off the podium and the last pamphlet is handed out to the attendees. When players return to their teams, the focus is less about their off field behavior and more about their performance on it. NFL Clubs don’t see their primary task as “babysitters” of the very talent that makes the game of professional football so wildly popular; rather they see their primary mission as “winning football games”. So the majority of focus and resources go directly towards just that throughout the regular season.
The lectures and lessons of former NFL players “gone bad” are long gone in the minds of the current crop of stars. Their concerns are centered squarely on making the 53 man roster and contributing ever more towards winning. If a player happens to step out of line or stray from his contractual responsibilities, the Club has the legal backing of its agreement with the player and the rules set forth in the CBA to discipline as they see fit. If these punishments don’t get the point across, well then the player is usually given his pink slip. “On to the next one” is the mantra of most GM’s and head coaches. They don’t have time to babysit.
“Drawing the line”
NFL owners and their front offices are willing to “draw a line in the sand” in order to send a message to their fans and the media that poor character and bad behavior will not be tolerated. But in the quest to keep winning, standards are lowered from time to time in pursuit of top talent. “We’ll keep an eye on this one, the team’s veterans will be able to handle that one.” “He was a first round talent but we couldn’t pass him up in the fifth.” There’s always an explanation, a story, an excuse for why an NFL Club will break its own rules.
Most of the boundaries are usually placed from a financial perspective, with heavy default language placed on those areas the Club can control. The League has its own watered down protection through grievance and arbitration proceedings. All of this is very reactive in its attempt to enforce character standards/policies and very little is actually done from a proactive approach.
The idea of 24/7
Based upon both the stated and implied goals of the National Football League, as well its own actions in dealing with past player transgression on and off the field, the NFL player is expected to be an “NFL player” 24/7. No different than the military service, police force, firemen, and many other public figures. The understandable difference is NFL players are technically private individuals by definition but carry a very public persona and responsibility.
Clubs should also carry their own responsibility to have programs already in place and be willing to make them a mandatory part of being a “Falcon, or Patriot, or Eagle”; especially if they choose to cross their own lines. These programs aren’t just to check off a box at the Rookie Symposium but to guide players throughout their careers.
A new kind of NFL Player Development
The following series of posts were written by The Football Educator over the past few seasons to address this very issue;
So what’s it going to be? More money spent on vetting processes that NFL Clubs will continue to “crossover”, or a proactive developmental program that centers on maximizing the most valuable assets an NFL Club possesses; its players.