Posted on Mon, Oct. 16, 2006

[size=13pt]Character issue looms large over NFL[/size]

By Chris Harry
The Orlando Sentinel


(MCT)

TAMPA, Fla. _After his team's come-from-behind victory over Detroit on Oct. 8, Minnesota Coach Brad Childress congratulated his players and told them to enjoy the win as they headed into a bye week.

He also had some advice.

A year ago, the open date became open season on the Vikings. A Lake Minnetonka "sex cruise" exploded into a story on the local crime beat, opened the franchise to national ridicule and ultimately sealed the exit of quarterback Daunte Culpepper.

Everyone in the Vikings' locker room knew where their coach was going before they headed toward the door.

Childress left them with four words: "Don't be the guy."

For the most part, athletes love seeing their images emblazoned across sports sections the morning after a big game. The front of the metro or city section is another matter.

"The football team is an extension of the community," Tampa Bay General Manager Bruce Allen said. "You want the public - the fans - to identify with the players."

The garden-variety fan couldn't identify with the "Love Boat" scandal. It embarrassed the franchise and forced new owner Zygi Wilf to make sweeping changes, including the implementation of an organizational code of conduct.

"I want to make it extremely clear that this behavior will never be tolerated again," Wilf vowed at the time.

It hasn't been since. Well, at least not in Minnesota.

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PRISON STRIPES

The Cincinnati Bengals are on a run of 10 arrests since Dec. 15, including four by wide receiver Chris Henry. One of Henry's incidents occurred in Orlando, when he pulled a gun in a crowd of people during Super Bowl week in January.

Two weeks ago, Bengals linebacker Odell Thurman was pulled over by police. Already serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, Thurman had a blood-alcohol level of .018. Two teammates stayed in the car while Thurman was being tested. One was Henry, who reportedly was vomiting out of the rear window.

Maybe those stripes on the Bengals' helmets should cover their entire uniforms.

Cheap shot? Maybe. But with fame and fortune comes responsibility. When that's compromised in such a public arena as the NFL, a lot of people look bad.

"We've made some poor decisions and poor choices, players have," said Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis. "And actions they have taken, things they've done, they've had to pay consequences for it.

"This is a privilege to play in the National Football League. Unfortunately, some guys do not realize that privilege and they won't be here very long. Obviously, we take the hit for it. I take the hit, and we take it as a team."

Bucs Coach Jon Gruden knows Lewis and Bengals President Mike Brown, whose father, Hall-of-Fame Coach Paul Brown, was one of the giants in NFL history.

"Those are two class acts who have a lot of pride in that organization," Gruden said. "But no one is perfect in this world. There's going to be times where somebody gets out of line. Hopefully, if you make a mistake, you learn from it because it's important to understand how visible you are and how an off-the-field incident can tarnish your team."

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`KNUCKLEHEADS'

Cris Collinsworth is a studio analyst for NBC and HBO, but remains one of the faces of the Cincinnati franchise. Last year, the Bengals ended the league's longest playoff drought - 14 seasons - by going 11-5, winning the AFC North and reaching the postseason for the first time since 1990.

So what did people want to talk with Collinsworth about during the offseason? Certainly not star players Carson Palmer or Chad Johnson. They wanted to chat about the players Collinsworth refers to as "the knuckleheads."

For Collinsworth, a Cincinnati resident and Bengals season-ticket holder, the subject grew old fast.

"Guys have to realize it's not just about them," he told Bengals.com. "They're representing not only guys that used to play there, but the city. People are paying a lot of money to go down there and fill up the stadium. It's something that is really built on a personal and emotional level. When things like that happen, there is a little bit more distance and not as much emotion. People don't want to invest in it so heavily at some point."

Whether the players recognize that is up for debate.

Henry's arrests also include a marijuana conviction, plus pending charges of DUI and providing alcohol to minors. But when Henry caught two touchdown passes in a 28-20 upset at Pittsburgh last month, the scattering of Bengals fans at Heinz Park made their pleasure known.

"I don't think the fans care about image," said Johnson, the Pro Bowl receiver known for his creative touchdown celebrations. "I think the NFL cares more about the image than the fans do. The fans come to enjoy the game whether you've been arrested or not."

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PERCEPTION IS REALITY

Those in NFL power, safe to say, would like to avoid that dilemma. Teams sink millions of dollars annually into scouting, which includes comprehensive background checks on prospects. The research goes back to their childhood days, often uncovering indiscretions.

"I think kids can make mistakes, I feel kids deserve a second chance," New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said. "If he's been in trouble from Day 1, you're playing against the odds."

Sometimes, the player makes it easier.

In 2002, Jacksonville seemed set on taking Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth with the ninth overall pick. They brought him in before the draft, then were completely turned off by his attitude. Haynesworth even told then-coach Tom Coughlin he didn't care for Coughlin's coaching style or personality.

The Jags instead selected defensive tackle John Henderson, Haynesworth's college teammate.

Henderson hasn't been an angel - a domestic-violence charge three years ago_but he hasn't gashed an opponent with his cleats, either.

"You look at the entire package and, yes, talent is part of it," Allen said. "But I think our league has done a great job educating players also."

The NFL has a slew of programs, such as the mandatory rookie symposium, plus financial and planning seminars, to help acclimate players to their new careers and lifestyles.

At some point, though, the player has to do his part.

Brown, who rarely speaks to the media, held a news conference during training camp to address the run of negative publicity with his team.

"If it turns out these guys step over the line, the law will have appropriate sanctions . . . and the league will as well," he said. "But I think it's the general policy in this country that until you're convicted of something, you're not assumed to be guilty. We all understand that as principle."

There is no arguing that. But there's no arguing one of life's unwritten principles, either: Perception is reality.

"Only for the shallow people," Lewis said. "The people who understand know the majority of guys have done things right."

But it's the minority_six players in handcuffs over the past 10 months_making the negative news.

The lesson is simple.

Don't be that guy.

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Orlando Sentinel staff writers Andrea Adelson and Alan Schmadtke contributed to this report. Chris Harry can be reached at [email protected].