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Is The NFL Really The Highest-Paid Crime Ring In America?

By Christopher Weir

JANUARY 19, 1999: 

Pros And Cons: The Criminals Who Play In The NFL, Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger (Warner Books). Cloth, $24.

IN THEIR MAD dash to criminalize the National Football League, the authors of Pros and Cons fail to make one crucial distinction: the difference between arrests and convictions. Consequently, their thesis is like January without the Super Bowl. It just doesn't compute.

"We are not talking about just a few bad apples here," Benedict and Yaeger insist in their Authors' Note. "Our research shows that 21 percent--one out of every five--of the players in the NFL have been charged with a serious crime."

Shocking, eh? It's helpful here to skip the rest of the book and go straight to Appendix I, in which we're treated to a "partial list of the players who were discovered by the authors to have a criminal history." Here, among others, we find the Buccaneers' Warren Sapp, who was charged with possession of marijuana. The charge was dropped. Then there's the Seahawks' Bennie Blades, who was arrested on a DUI charge. He was acquitted.

Pardon this rather impertinent question: Don't you have to be convicted of something before you have a criminal history?

Never mind. The book's questionable 21-percent figure is already ricocheting across sports-talk radio, just another tawdry "fact" forged by repetition (and there's nothing more repetitive than sports-talk radio). Now the rumor is that 60 Minutes is following up with its own "investigation." As if Mike Wallace didn't already have enough excuses to work himself into a self-righteous lather.

It's too bad, really, that Benedict and Yaeger choose to employ rather elastic definitions of both "serious" and "crime" in their attempt to scandalize the NFL, because they've otherwise penned some compelling case studies of truly dysfunctional athletes and their hordes of enablers. If there's any scandal here, it's not in the sheer number of football players with allegedly criminal histories, but in the handful of repeat offenders who are seemingly immune to consequences.

For example, there's running back Bam Morris, who pled guilty to possession of five pounds of marijuana in Texas, logged no jail time and received a meager four-day suspension from the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Morris subsequently failed a league-administered drug test, but the NFL refused to share the results with the Texas Probation Department and simply gave him another four-game suspension. Finally, after failing to comply with the "simple formalities of his probation," such as keeping appointments with his probation officer, Morris was sentenced to 120 days in jail last January. He now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, a wreck of a team that, not surprisingly, is suffering from severe chemistry problems.

More disturbing, however, are the serial goons--from coaches to players to draft picks--whose repeated abuse of women goes unaddressed by the same league that moralizes against drugs, gambling and firearms. "As of this writing," Benedict and Yaeger note, "the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players contained no prohibitions against or punishments for domestic violence. Why? The crime is not seen as a direct threat to the integrity of the game."

The authors are at their best when revealing such hypocrisies and exposing the NFL's pathological reluctance to take meaningful action against its most troublesome players. But they are at their worst when they lapse into hysterics to demonstrate their outrage. At one point, noting that the Rams allowed Darryl Henley play while he was under indictment for cocaine trafficking, the authors mock the team for "citing the familiar 'innocent until proven guilty' theme."

It's not a theme, guys. It's the foundation of the American criminal justice system. And, among other things, it's what allowed the Cowboys' Michael Irvin to make an honest living last year when he was falsely accused of a sexual crime by an affirmed gold-digger (an episode that the authors conveniently ignore).

So should we really be alarmed about an epidemic of outlaw football players terrorizing our streets? Quite frankly, if this reviewer is worried about 21 percent of any group, it's 21 percent of the folks he saw at the mall over the holidays. A more positive way of looking at it: If at least four-fifths of a given group--especially if many of its members come from demographically challenged backgrounds, as is the case in the NFL--consists of good, sober, law-abiding citizens, then maybe things aren't so dire after all.

Basically, it boils down to another distinction the authors fail to make: It's one thing to address problems and quite another to create them.


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