Updated: May 24, 2021
Taken from CBS Sports
Written By: Jason La Canfora
Current or former NFL players are doing something for others, somewhere, every day. They are volunteering at a soup kitchen or mentoring children or planning the next event for their foundation or speaking to at-risk kids at a group home. They are handing out backpacks full of school supplies and paying for a stranger’s college tuition. They are doing good, privately and quietly, and they far outnumber their peers who have made international news in this young season for their arrests or arraignments or suspensions.
The NFL has a perception problem, which begins at the highest reaches of the league office and extends to the last man on the practice squad of every team. A league so concerned with “The Shield” is at a crossroads at a time when many of its decisions and actions stand on the short side of public sentiment.
There’s Commissioner Roger Goodell, owners flip-flopping in their punishments but now reaching out the NFLPA — and also some new female voices brought into the league office for assistance in how to rework the personal conduct policy and league discipline moving forward.
Never has there been a time when the behavior of professional football players has been more scrutinized by fans, non-fans, media and NFL officials alike, obscuring the greater reality about what a small percentage of these famous, and in many cases very wealthy, players actually run afoul of the law. All are painted by the same broad brush, one more discolored and jaundiced than ever before, but to take that dim a view of the 1,600-odd men who make up these rosters each week, and the legion of NFL alumni who are dedicated to service and commitment to the families and communities, is to do a great disservice.
At a time when the league is searching for answers and probing for ways to re-imagine its brand and improve its standing with America, it might be best to turn inward, to the very men who make up the majority of their locker rooms, past and present, who toil in their charity efforts in relative anonymity but who have strong thoughts and feelings about the current state of NFL. The help Goodell needs might be found within, by tapping into the many good souls already serving as beacons in locker rooms, by shining more of a light on them and providing them with a greater pulpit and infrastructure to bring their teammates into the fold.
Having initial discussions with NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith was a good first step for Goodell, and countless meetings and discussions remain. But having discussed these issues with current and former players who are particularly dedicated to service and who have worked closely with life coach Chrissy Carew and her community-minded Insightful Player initiative, I believe the league might best bridge a brighter future with its players by empowering these men as part of the personal-conduct process, and trying to restore the NFL’s image with players and fans alike.
“There is a disconnect in trust,” said Saints tight end Ben Watson, who through his “One More” foundation does hands-on counseling and mentorship with middle and high school girls, conducts mission trips to help rebuild needy communities, and hosts football clinics. “The trust level is not there for the most part, I would say, between players and the Commissioner, and the NFL as a whole right now, when you look at all of the allegations of cover-ups and who knew what in regards to the Ray Rice situation. That’s just another block in the already tall tower of incidents that have happened that have made players kind of distrust the disciplinary action Roger Goodell passes down. A lot of times it seems to be self-serving and unfair.
“We as players are all for more voices of reason when it comes to player discipline and more consistency and allowing players to have somewhat of a say in the matter. But a lot of what comes out seems to be reactionary and it seems to be we live in a reactionary activist time — things happen and then we respond and give a politically correct response after the fact to the public response to what happened.”
These are frustrating times for the majority of NFL players.
Just this week, Adrian Peterson was arraigned in Texas on child-abuse charges, and Greg Hardy‘s domestic violence court date looms next month. On Wednesday, Goodell and the owners made it clear they spent the bulk of the time at their annual fall league meeting discussing domestic violence issues. The image problem is all of theirs to share, regardless of culpability, and listing your occupation as an NFL player these days can draw some sideways glances.
When every television network breaks into regularly scheduled programming to show a 45-minute impromptu Goodell press conference and when Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s press conferences following Ray Rice’s release received as much coverage on CNN as they did on ESPN, the league has a big problem.
“The media has done so much for this game, its popularity worldwide, breaking records every year with the Super Bowl viewership,” said Raiders safety Usama Young who has worked closely with children in his native Washington, D.C., as well as in the Bay Area. “It’s an amazing thing. But at the same time you look and say, ‘Wow, what’s happening here.’ I understand these are huge issues, but for them to continually replay it, and to show the video over and over and post the pictures of Adrian Peterson’s child, it was disheartening for me. I think about all the good players we have out there, and all positive things they’re doing, and those two guys do a lot of positive thing in the community, too, and have done so much to impact our league and their communities in a positive way, but this is all they’re going to be remembered for right now.
“When you first hear of a player that got into trouble, whether it be domestic violence or driving under the influence, you automatically equate it to, ‘Wow they’ve got that problem specifically in that league, in the NFL.’ And that’s not accurate at all. Those situations happen all across all sectors, around the world.”
Indeed, when players like Young are taking underprivileged on college visits around the country or taking them to volunteer at a Washington food bank, or working to weed a garden or help feed the hungry or organizing coach drives for the holidays, no one knows. When players get arrested or commit crimes, increasingly, we see the net results, if not the crime itself being committed.
“The spotlight has really increased,” said former Eagle Kevin Reilly, a cancer survivor and amputee who works extensively in the community, “and unfortunately the news that sells is the news with tension, and we’re not seeing the $100,000 donations that an Eagles player makes for a park in a bad section of Philadelphia. It might get a little mention, and then it’s lost. To put things in perspective, I think lot of this is going on a long time, but back in the day, gosh, no one was aware of your personal life, and if they knew they wouldn’t write about it. It was kind of off base.
“That being said, I don’t believe it’s any worse today than it’s been in the past. As a matter of fact if I had a magic wand I would say it’s better than when I played, and everything was in the dark. I really would.”
Watson believes that it is incumbent on the players themselves, while asking more of the league’s primary leaders, to also demand more from themselves in policing their own locker rooms and reaching out to troubled teammates. Watson and other players are in essence calling for greater truthfulness and transparency from the rank and file of each team in making it part of their job to intercede when possible and be proactive in reaching out to teammates in the same way players are demanding a more forthright approach from the league in its handling of disciplinary issues.
“The NFL is doing some good things when it comes to encouraging men through player programs, and there is some good stuff out there available to us,” Watson said, “but we can always do more. And we also have to realize that us in the locker room, with each other, it’s our job to challenge each other to do better, too. We’re sometimes scared to challenge each other and we feel like our teammates may ostracize you, and you don’t wan to look like a hypocrite. But at this point in my life and career I realize of course we’re all going to make mistakes, but we have a chance to challenge these young men when it comes to raising children, the right way of being faithful to your family, the right kind of person to try to be.
“You’d be surprised how people respond sometimes when you are telling them the truth and you are challenging them in a positive way. We challenge each other in so many ways on the field and at practice and to attain a certain like of proficiency on the field, why not challenge each other to be great when it comes to things off the field like being a husband and being a leader in your community and to your family?”
Former Dolphins and Saints cornerback Reggie Howard is among the many players who have dedicated their post-playing careers to helping others and trying to inspire current players to follow in their footsteps. Howard realized by his sixth NFL season that although he had always taken part in community events and given generously of his money in aiding causes, he felt a higher calling to do more. He is currently the President and Executive Director of the United Athletes Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers athletes to impact communities through education and social development, working very closely with legends like Ray Lewis and Hall of Famer Jim Brown to connect athletes’ various foundations to work together in various geographic areas to attack social ills like poverty and lack of housing.
They work directly in communities building affordable homes in inner cities and establishing college scholarships for kids who otherwise might not pursue education at all.
“For me it came down to the fact I always felt fulfilled in my life, so how do I give back,” Howard said, “and also, how can I educate and help instill in others how to do the same thing. We try to bring the resources to help that happen. So often guys in this league are looking at people with their hand out looking for something from them. So the first for me to say is, ‘I’m here with my hand out to help you, to be a service to you. In sports we’re always taught teamwork, so why not use that same approach in philanthropy and changing lives?
“Our true mission is to be a partner with the players and help them be more efficient no matter what their purpose is in the community. Collaboration is so big for our organization and doing what we say we can do, and because of that in six years we’ve establishes strong partnerships with St. Jude’s Medial Research Hospital. We’ve work with Microsoft on innovation programs for STEM educational diversity. We’ve started our own credit card company out of the Michigan Great Lakes Capital Fund which for over 20 years has fought foreclosures and fought for more affordable housing. We’ve launched project for financial literacy and technology diversity. We’ve worked with the NYSE on programs, we’ve partnered with Toyota and their employees on programs for financial literacy we’ve worked with the Jackie Robinson Community Center in NY on youth initiatives.”
If I’m Roger Goodell, this is someone I want to spend some considerable time with — someone who played the game and shined on the field, who has accomplished big things in exhaustive outreach work, who can relate to players and share their experiences and who has unique knowledge and insight into bring out the best in these athletes outside the locker room. He might have some thoughts on team-based programs and methods to cultivate leadership. Might be the kind of guy I’d want on a personal-conduct committee feting out discipline to players.
One could also argue the point as to whether the league does enough to promote the good deeds its players are doing, shining a bright enough light on them.
“One thing I think is missing is when I watch an NBA game it seems like throughout the game we see the things these guys are going whether it’s the holiday season or just a typical February game,” Young said. “When I see OKC play, you best believe during that game we’re going to see Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and what they are going in the community. I think the NFL misses the mark on that one. … I think that media aspect is missing and when it comes to the NFL it’s almost getting tagged as ‘Bad Boy League’ and that sucks, because it’s a very small percentage of guys who are getting arrested or failing drug test or doing things that are a negative influence to the younger generation that is looking up to these players.”
If nothing else, this sobering start to the 2013 season has forced the NFL into long overdue change. Falling back on the way things were always done, or past precedents, isn’t good enough anymore, and the league knows it. It’s not nearly as proactive as it should have been, but it’s a start. And, at its finish, when a new conduct policy is unveiled and a new discipline arm is in place, we can all hope it’s more reflective of the greater good players do, and more in step with societal feelings about the scourge that is child abuse and domestic violence.
“This is a multibillion-dollar corporation that has been flying under the radar for on these issues for an awful long time now,” said Reilly, who played in the NFL from 1973-75 and later lost an arm to cancer. “It’s still part of the old-boy network and you look at the coaching staffs and who keeps getting hired and brought back. You would never get away with that in the business world. I spent 30 years with Xerox and taught sexual harassment and values and diversity and they made us teach it to our peers; not from an outsider. It has to come from your own people.
“This is where I find fault with the NFL. One of the things it can do a lot better job of is reaching out to alumni who are going a good job and understand the right way and bringing them in more. A lot of these guys really want to do the right thing, but I don’t think they are given the direction a lot of us take for granted. They go from high school to college and the colleges aren’t doing a lot to mentor them and then they get a lot of money and are thrown in the spotlight, and they don’t know where some of the lines are.”