Are you ready for some felons?
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
As fans forked out $5,000 for a ticket to this year’s Super Bowl, I found myself thinking less about the game and more about the men who play it. While I wish that Americans considered Stephen Hawking the coolest role model, the fact is our society worships athletes – especially successful, really famous ones.
When we put Tim Lincecum on our Northside San Francisco cover in May 2008, sports writer Michael Murphy wrote prophetically, “He’s not the biggest guy in the clubhouse, not the loudest, the brashest, or the most publicized. But he is the hope of the San Francisco Giants.” That month marked the one-year anniversary of Lincecum’s call-up from the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies; it was before his two Cy Young Awards, and before the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. At the time, you could walk down the street with Lincecum and no one bothered him; in fact, few people recognized him – but not any more, because along with trophies, big bucks and TV face-time come adoring fans.
For the most part, baseball does a pretty good job in the role model department. You hear relatively few bad things about professional baseball players, and even the bad stuff isn’t very bad and doesn’t happen very often. I think that’s partly because Major League Baseball guards its All-American brand fiercely, and partly because of the players themselves. If smoking a little pot, pitching a no-hitter drunk, and lying about steroids are the worst examples you have in a sea of self-entitled athletes, you’re doing something right. That’s not the case with the National Football League, however, where a guy is only as bad as his last game.
According to the book Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL, by Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger, 21 percent of NFL players – around one in five – have been charged with at least one serious crime, including murder, rape, domestic violence, and assault and battery. Shockingly, more than 30 convicted felons are currently playing with the League’s blessing, leading critics to refer to it as the “National Felons League.”
But it’s not just wimpy NFL commissioner Roger Goodell who loves felons. President Barack Obama recently thanked Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie for giving Michael Vick a second chance (does President Obama really believe Vick would have gotten that second chance if he couldn’t throw a football?), and the sports media were downright giddy when Vick led his team to a 59–28 trouncing of the Washington Redskins Nov. 14, calling it “the comeback story of the year.” Vick was convicted in 2008 on federal dog-fighting charges and served 18 months in prison before being reinstated by Goodell.
When he was promoted from back-up to starter by coach Andy Reid last September, the Philadelphia Daily News featured Vick on the cover with the headline, “Top Dog: In a shocking turn, Reid names Vick starter.” This is, of course, in reference to the fact Vick was the kingpin of a dog-fighting operation; however, he was also a sadist, torturing and killing dogs in heinous ways including hanging, drowning and electrocution. Vick especially enjoyed electrocution – he would douse dogs with water and throw live wires on them, or clip jumper cables to their ears and connect the cables to the battery terminals of running cars, toss the dogs in the swimming pool, and laugh as they scrambled for their lives.
It briefly looked like Vick would take the Eagles to the Super Bowl, but he fell down like a fainting goat every time a hulking Green Bay Packer came within six feet of him in the NFC Wild Card game, so for now the sports media is silent.
When Goodell allowed Vick back into the NFL, he said there would be a zero tolerance policy, but once again Goodell wimped out. This past June, Vick threw himself a 30th birthday party where he fraternized with his old dog-fighting buddies, and one of those buddies wound up getting shot in the nightclub’s parking lot. It’s only a matter of time before the self-destructive Vick commits another violent crime, and because 99 percent of animal abusers eventually turn to humans, his next victim will likely not be a dog. That won’t matter to Goodell, though, because he’s amazingly tolerant of players who commit crimes against humans, too:
In April 2009, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth pled guilty to manslaughter charges after killing a man while driving drunk. He received a slap on the wrist and a 30-day jail sentence, and while he is officially suspended from the NFL, the Browns have not released Stallworth from his $35 million contract.
After years of arrests and convictions for various crimes, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Adam “Packman” Jones was arrested in 2006 for spitting in a woman’s face at a Nashville nightclub. The following year, he assaulted a stripper and threatened the life of a security guard in Las Vegas. Jones pled guilty to lesser charges, was suspended for the 2007 season, but returned to play with the Cowboys in 2008.
Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Tank Johnson was charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest after threatening a police officer in 2006. At the time, he was on probation for carrying a concealed weapon. Johnson was also charged with a number of probation violations. After spending 43 days in jail, Johnson received an eight-game suspension.
In 2005, Cleveland Browns running back Jamal Lewis served four months in prison after being caught trying to obtain and distribute five kilograms of cocaine, for which the NFL gave him a four-game suspension. In 2008 Lewis was hailed a hero for rushing 1,000 yards.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis pled guilty to obstruction of justice in 2000 and agreed to testify against two friends so prosecutors would dismiss murder charges against him after he was accused of stabbing two people to death after a Super Bowl party. Lewis was fined, but not suspended. In 2008, he received his 10th selection to the Pro Bowl.
Chicago Bears defensive tackle Christian Peter came to the NFL having been arrested eight times while at the University of Nebraska. In once instance, he grabbed a woman by the throat. He was also alleged to have raped a freshman woman multiple times. In 1993 he sexually assaulted two women. He retired in 2003 after an eight-year career in the NFL.
In 1998, St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little ran a red light while driving drunk, killing a woman. He pled guilty to manslaughter, spent three months in a work-release program, and returned to play the next season. He was arrested again for drunk driving in 2004. In 2006, he went to the Pro Bowl.
Because the NFL coddles its criminals, violence continues to escalate after players leave the game – and I’m not just talking about O.J. Simpson:
Once called the “greatest player he ever coached” by Dick Vermeil, 1996 first-round draft pick running back Lawrence Phillips pled no contest to assaulting a woman at a night club in Miami after being released by the Saint Louis Rams in 1997. In December 2009, he was sentenced to 31 years in prison for driving his car into three teenagers and attacking his girlfriend.
Another first-round draft pick, Rae Carruth of the Carolina Panthers was found guilty of conspiring to commit murder against his pregnant girlfriend in 2001. Though the woman died, the 8-month-old fetus survived – and has a father now serving an 18- to 24-year prison term.
In June 2010, NFL Hall of Fame New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor was indicted on six charges including rape, endangering the welfare of a child, and patronizing a prostitute. Taylor is accused of raping a 16-year-old girl at a Holiday Inn Hotel in Rockland County, New York.
From the time they are discovered to have special talent, athletes are treated like gods and given every chance in the world to succeed. Unfortunately, being handed life on a silver platter isn’t always a good thing. While Major League Baseball and The National Basketball Association aren’t immune to violent criminal acts among their pampered ranks, the high number of current and former violent NFL felons tells me the tolerance and downright acceptance of their acts by Roger Goodell, team owners and team coaches deserves much of the blame.
Sadly, complicity often starts long before players join the elite world of pro football:
On Oct. 13, 2010, it was reported that New Orleans Saints rookie running back Chris Ivory is facing felony assault charges from 2009 when he was a student at Washington State University. Charged with hitting a fellow student over the head with a bottle, young Ivory faces three to nine months in prison if convicted. According to head coach Sean Payton, the Saints organization and the NFL were fully aware of the situation before the 2010 draft, after which Ivory signed with the team as an undrafted free agent.
In a sport where winning is everything, apparently winning in life is not a prerequisite.