Leagues instruct players in avoiding pitfalls

As a professional athlete's pocketbook grows, so does the risk of problems

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If testimonials, seminars and counsel provided less than three weeks ago at the 13th annual Rookie Symposium failed to sink in, the NFL's class of incoming players may well have received deep lessons from stories in the media the past few weeks:

Former Tennessee and Baltimore quarterback Steve McNair, married with children, is slain by a girlfriend.

Former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick is freed after 23 months of incarceration for dog fighting.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is named one of nine defendants in a lawsuit seeking more than $400,000 in medical expenses, not counting punitive damages. The woman accused him of sexual assault, an allegation his attorney called "viciously false."

And the NFL certainly isn't alone in educating its players about off-field travails: the NHL offers advice about life off the ice, the NBA off the court and Major League Baseball off the diamond.

Part of the issue remains the fact that travails aren't limited to rookies. Rather, the larger a commodity a professional athlete becomes, his or her pocketbook grows exponentially -- as does the plausibility of attracting problems beyond the field, court or ice.

Sexual encounters are especially fraught with peril, turning into life-altering games of he-said, she-said that could wind up in court.

Mr. Roethlisberger, a few months after signing a $102 million contract, was playing in a celebrity-tour golf event and staying at a Lake Tahoe resort. It was there, a hotel employee claimed in a civil action filed Friday in Nevada, that an incident happened in July 2008 between her and the person her lawyers identified as Roethlisberger, "a celebrity athlete, a quarterback employed by the Pittsburgh Steelers."

"It's amazing right now: we get the McNair thing, the Vick thing, the Roethlisberger thing. These are all guys who know better," Central Florida professor and pro-sports consultant Bill Sutton said yesterday. He added that he wasn't assigning guilt or innocence, but was referring to star quarterbacks who find themselves at the center of controversial situations.

Mr. Sutton, a graduate of the former South Hills Catholic High who later worked for the city and Robert Morris University, is the associate department head under Richard Lapchick at UCF's DeVos Sports Business Management Graduate Program where a bevy of sports issues is researched.

Mr. Sutton also previously worked as a vice president in business operations with the NBA, so he knows intimately these away-from-the-game educational efforts.

"The leagues have programs, they have qualified staffers, they have orientation programs, they have internship transition programs -- they have everything. It's all there," Mr. Sutton said. "When I was with the NBA, I was blown away by the depth of everything they have. Blown away. I'd love to have that support system. But [the athlete] has 15 guys whispering in his ear, 'You don't have to go back to school. . . .'

"It's a can-you-lead-the-horse-to-water thing."

Former star receiver Cris Carter told the Rookie Symposium in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. earlier this month that troubled former players Ryan Leaf, Plaxico Burress, Pacman Jones and Mr. Vick attended previous sessions where he spoke: "Every one of them looked at me and said, '. . . It ain't going to be me.' "

In the NFL, each team has a player development director to help players with their off-the-field lives. Ray Jackson, who was unavailable for comment, heads the Steelers' department, whose mission statement refers to challenging "players to be lifelong learners while pursuing continuous improvement in family relations, social interactions, personal growth and career development during and beyond their careers as NFL players."

Along those same lines, the NHL annually has security personnel, doctors and others meet with each team's personnel to talk about avoiding issues ranging from banned substances to off-ice incidents.

The NBA's Rookie Transition Program, created 23 years ago as part of its off-court assistance curriculum, last summer kicked out two players for rules violations: Darrell Arthur of Memphis and Mario Chalmers of Miami.

MLB is in its 17th year of its Rookie Career Development, among other educational programs.

The onus, though, falls on the players throughout their careers, Mr. Sutton said.

"Still, it doesn't weigh in with a lot of those guys -- they're in the media 24-7, 365. Every second of every hour," Mr. Sutton said. "The access now is unbelievable. You can get your word out there, whether your word is true or not.

"These guys . . . if they don't see themselves as a brand, that's a mistake. A brand is the sum of everything you do against everything you don't do. . . These guys are failing to live up to that. They're used to having five seconds left and you have the ball.

"In these situations, there are five seconds left, and you don't have the ball. [Others] have the ball -- they have the cell-phone camera, or they have the blog. You've got to realize that."

Chuck Finder can be reached cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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