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Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2000 /11 Adar I, 5760

Joseph Perkins

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The only thing that will rein in NFL criminals is negative public opinion


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Paul Tagliabue doesn't get it.

When the NFL commissioner was queried recently about the growing number of professional football players with criminal rap sheets -- including 13 of the jocks who suited up for Super Bowl XXXIV last month -- he replied, "I think our track record is better than society at large."

He continued. "Can we separate ourselves from society? Of course not. We can't predict what NFL players will do any more than we can predict students shooting other students or workers shooting fellow workers."

Well, I'm going to go out on a limb here. I'm going to predict that none of my co-workers will shoot a fellow co-worker (or anyone else) over the next calendar year.

The reason is that upper-middle-class, college-educated professionals -- like major metropolitan newspaper writers and editors -- generally don't commit violent crimes in our society. They don't get themselves arrested for the stabbing deaths of two people, like Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who's chilling out at the moment in an Atlanta jail cell. They don't get themselves charged with the shooting death of a pregnant girlfriend, like Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, who not-so-eagerly awaits a death penalty trial in Charlotte.

And Lewis and Carruth are just the most extreme examples of lawlessness among NFL players. In their book "Pros and Cons: The Criminals who Play in the NFL," (Warner Books, 1999) authors Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger, write that one of every five professional football players has been charged with a serious crime. That includes such criminals offenses as rape, kidnapping, assault and battery, weapons possession, drug dealing, driving while intoxicated, domestic violence, and, of course, homicide. At least one NFL owner concedes that lawlessness among the league's players has reached epidemic proportions.

"I've been part of this league for 40 years, and I just can't ever remember so many cases of a criminal nature," lamented Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who has had two of his own players charged with sexual assault of two off-duty police officers in a nightclub. "It's getting out of hand."

You would think that Wilson and his fellow owners would take drastic measures to curb such criminality among their millionaire players, recognizing how badly their conduct reflects upon the NFL. However, several owners have themselves run afoul of the law.

Just this past week, in fact,
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones backed out of a deal with Dallas prosecutors in which he was to plead no contest to charges of fleeing from police after a traffic stop in exchange for a fine and 24 hours of community service.

But no NFL owner in recent years has been more notorious than Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who controlled the San Francisco 49ers franchise until being ousted by his sister in a family power struggle. Fast Eddie pleaded guilty to a felony charge two years ago for his part in a gambling scandal connected to former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards. Unlike previous brushes with the law, including a sexual assault accusation and an assault and battery charge, the 'Niners owner could not buy his way out of the felony rap.

So NFL lawlessness is not limited to the league's players. It extends all the way up to the ownership ranks. And since players and owners alike have demonstrated a contempt for the law, it is wishful thinking to expect that the league will clean up its own act.

The only thing, then, that will rein in NFL criminals is negative public opinion. For only when pro football fans are sufficiently turned off by all the NFL players committing rapes and murders, gun and drug offenses, and other assorted crimes, will the big, bad league stop hiding behind the specious defense that it's no more lawless than "society at large."

Alas, the public continue to fill NFL stadiums throughout the fair land, from San Diego (where, thank goodness, none of the local pros have killed anyone) to Baltimore and Carolina (where they have, allegedly). They continue to watch the games on television no matter how many convicted criminals are on the field. And they continue to buy NFL merchandise, including the ersatz jerseys of their favorite NFL players, rap sheets or not.

So Tagliabue is on point, quite unintentionally, when he says that the NFL cannot be separated from society. For we, the public, tacitly condone lawlessness by NFL players when we cheer the exploits of criminal jocks on the field of play, while ignoring their off-the-field misconduct.



JWR periodic contributor Joseph Perkins is San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and a television commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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