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NFL criminal cases put focus on vetting

Friday - 6/28/2013, 3:50pm  ET

Former New England Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez stands during a bail hearing in Fall River Superior Court Thursday, June 27, 2013 in Fall River, Mass. Hernandez, charged with murdering Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semi-pro football player, was denied bail. (AP Photo/Boston Herald, Ted Fitzgerald, Pool)

BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer

Two felony charges in one day were more than a bump in the NFL's offseason. They pointed to an ongoing problem for the league -- players who wind up at the center of criminal cases.

Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested Wednesday in Massachusetts, accused of murdering his friend Odin Lloyd. Also Wednesday, Browns rookie linebacker Ausar Walcott was charged with attempted murder in New Jersey.

Both players were cut later in the day by their teams. On Thursday, the league said any club that now wants to sign Hernandez will face a hearing with Commissioner Roger Goodell first.

The question now is whether the veteran tight end and the rookie should have been in the league at all.

"It is difficult, it's always a balancing act," says Tony Dungy, who won a Super Bowl as Colts coach and has served as a mentor to players since leaving the NFL, including Michael Vick after the quarterback served federal prison time for dogfighting. "The league has a security department that sends out information, and every team is different in terms of how much its scouting department does and what areas are concentrated on most.

"It's really a matter of what you do with the information and what your organization feels is important. One thing you have to keep in mind is a lot of the (negative) things that happen come when they are 15 or 17 or 19 years old."

According to FBI statistics cited by the league, the incidence of NFL players getting arrested is much lower than in the general public. The average annual arrest rate of NFL players is roughly 2 percent of about 3,000 players who go through the league each year, including tryouts and minicamps. That's about half the arrest rate of the general U.S. population, the league says. The NFL notes the disparity becomes even more dramatic when the group is narrowed to American men ages 20-34.

But Jeff Benedict, author of several books on athletes and crimes, including "Pros and Cons, The Criminals Who Play In The NFL," believes the FBI statistics are a bad gauge.

"The danger of doing comparisons with the general public is, if you look at these people and their backgrounds, how many of those guys who have been arrested in the FBI numbers have been to college, make a lot of money like NFL players do, and live in safe, good neighborhoods?" Benedict says. "The issue is why any of these guys are doing this when they have all these good things going on in their lives."

The San Diego Union-Tribune, which has tracked NFL arrests "more serious than speeding tickets" dating back to 2000, has listed 36 this year, including Hernandez and Walcott and three players who were charged twice.

By comparison, the NBA says six players of its players have been arrested since last July 1, and Major League Baseball says it's aware of three cases this year worse than a speeding ticket: two DUIs and a misdemeanor drug charge.

While granting that NFL rosters are far bigger than those in the NBA or MLB, Benedict says, "You can't take these tiny snap shots and say the NFL is low."

Of course, even a few cases such as Hernandez's or that of Jovan Belcher -- the Kansas City player who shot his girlfriend to death last December, then committed suicide in front of his coach and general manager -- can create a widespread negative image.

And anyone who has suited up for an NFL team will face extra public scrutiny for even minor transgressions.

That, in turn, puts more pressure on the league's vetting process.

Dungy stresses that the amount of homework teams do is critical because they don't get all that much one-on-one time with prospective players. Some clubs do psychological analyses, even hiring outside agencies to handle them. Though others like the approach, Dungy is not a fan of it and always believed in his gut feeling about a player.

"You have to find out if they have grown from the issues, or there seems to be a pattern, or will these issues always be there," he says.

Bill Polian, who built the Bills, Panthers and Colts into Super Bowl teams as one of the NFL's most successful general managers and team presidents, strongly maintains that the league's vetting process is solid. It delves into players' histories from high school and college before they enter the league. Those investigations have become more sophisticated through the years; background checks include not only public records such as court documents and arrest data, but talking to teammates and coaches, high school principals and other people who have been a part of a player's life and development.

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