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ESPN The Magazine: Protect & Serve
ESPN The Magazine

In the days after Rae Carruth’s pregnant girlfriend was shot and killed in November 1999, Charlotte police bore down on the Carolina Panthers, trying to interview players who had spent time with the wide receiver. What they found was a wall. Panthers security chief Gene Brown refused to let them into the locker room, give them access to players’ addresses or furnish them with phone numbers. Local law enforcement eventually built its case, and Carruth is serving an 18-to-24-year sentence for conspiring to have Cherica Adams murdered. But resentment lingers. “I received absolutely no cooperation from the Panthers,” says Tom Athey, a Charlotte homicide detective. “I’ve never heard anything from those people except the word no.” Adds another high-level cop: “Teams are going to protect their players at all costs. If you let them police themselves, you’re just asking for trouble.”

The last thing NFL Security chief Milt Ahlerich needs is trouble -- especially the kind of trouble that lands him on Nightline. He has his hands full guarding the $17.2 billion investment that TV networks have made in NFL Nation, the half-billion-dollar price tag that hangs off each of the league’s 32 franchises and the sweat equity that 1,800 players have poured into their careers.

But Ahlerich also will not apologize for the Panthers. “While we’re law enforcement by heritage, we’re not law enforcement here, and we don’t try to do their job for them,” he says. “I have no problem with the Panthers conduct.” Translation: We Protect Our Own. The NFL is crawling with ex-cops. Two-thirds of its clubs have full-time security chiefs. But when a case gets big enough to threaten the game’s integrity -- or at least rile commissioner Paul Tagliabue -- Ahlerich gets the call.

For years, players have feared visits from NFL Security agents. And for good reason. Players Association head Gene Upshaw, a Raiders Hall of Famer who played from 1967 to 1981, remembers sitting through training camp lectures in which agents warned, “You are the grass, gentlemen -- and we are the lawn mowers.” In his autobiography, Lawrence Taylor wrote about being tailed by NFL cops when he became addicted to coke in 1984. Eleven years later, the NFL was still at it, staking out a post-Super Bowl gambling cruise with exotic dancers, a nude limbo contest -- and four dozen players on board. And before he came into the league in 1995, Warren Sapp blasted the agency for giving teams a secret report that he says exaggerated how many times he failed drug tests as a Miami Hurricane. Sapp never saw the report nor had a chance to rebut it, and claimed it cost him a hefty signing bonus when his draft status tumbled.

But policing by paranoia doesn’t fit the new NFL Security, where coaches call their players “partners” and most pro ballers have never experienced a strike. So Ahlerich, a dapper ex-FBI agent who took over NFL Security in 1996, is reshaping his agency to work for fellow NFL citizens, not against them.

Job One: ending the tactics that cemented the agency’s Big Brother image. NFL Security no longer conducts drug tests, which are now under the direct purview of the NFL Management Council. And after the draft fiasco with Sapp, Ahlerich’s agency stopped rummaging through confidential college files. Now it checks only public records. Nor does it do party surveillance. Robert Agnew, NFL Security’s representative in Seattle, says the only time he’s staked out a bar was when Ahlerich wanted him to check out one that was pirating the league’s satellite signal.

The Charlotte cops who felt stonewalled are unimpressed. They believe the NFL has merely become more sophisticated at hiding its dirty laundry. But Ahlerich counters that in today’s sports world, you need to police through trust, “and that doesn’t work with us lurking in the bushes.”

What does the new NFL Security look like? Take a walk through the Ravens practice facility, where the first thing players see when they walk off the field -- before the locker room or the 2001 Lombardi trophy -- is a slick color advertisement on the wall that asks, “WHO DO YOU TRUST?”

The poster tells the players they can have their nannies screened, investment opportunities scanned and business partners checked out -- by NFL Security. The same poster makes the rounds in clubhouses across NFL Nation. “You get investment offers all the time,” says Falcons safety Ronnie Bradford. “I always use NFL Security to check out people.” Bengals tight end Tony McGee used them to check out a contractor building his new home.

Think of it as community policing with an NFL twist: Ahlerich works his way into the lives of his citizens, establishing a rapport so that they’re not afraid to call when real trouble strikes. The biggest problem players call about: identity theft. Vikings tight end Byron Chamberlain was floored when an NFL agent warned him someone was using his name in Nashville to get into parties. Even Upshaw, who blasted NFL Security for the way it handled the Sapp affair, has benefitted. Ahlerich’s agents caught a Nevada man using Upshaw’s name to scam money from college coaches by calling them to request money for a stranded nephew. “We tell our guys that there are a lot of ways they can use NFL Security,” says Upshaw. “But we also tell them, ‘Let’s face it. These guys are still cops.’”

Like the police, Ahlerich gets tips -- from casino workers, bar owners, local narcs or fans who cut out gossip columns. These are dealt with discreetly. Investigations chief Larry Sweeney remembers only one NFL Security-led investigation since ’96 that ended in a player suspension: Jon Stark, then the Ravens third-string quarterback, was found to be hanging out with a college bookie. “Our job isn’t to make cases against our athletes,” says Sweeney. “It’s to find guys heading down the wrong path and warn them against screwing up their lives.”

That job mostly falls to Matt Couloute, Ahlerich’s player liaison. A handsome, 31-year-old ex-prosecutor, he spends his time working locker rooms and handing out brochures, like the one that tells players how to protect themselves from identity theft. (Advice: Don’t let mail pile up in your mailbox; shred pre-approved credit card applications; order credit reports once a year to check for fraud.) When Couloute took the job eight months ago, he cringed as players yelled “Five-0” or made siren noises around him. These days, it’s more likely they’ll pull him aside to ask about some of those services offered in that poster.

Couloute’s assignments have included flying to Miami to quiz a business manager on behalf of a player; helping several vets recover money from con men who took deposits for bogus cars; even joining a search that found a player’s long-lost half-brother. But he’s also had sit-downs with two dozen players whom the agency has identified as headed for trouble, mainly due to the company they keep.

Meddling in a player’s life is dicey. In 1999, months before prosecutors implicated Ray Lewis in the deaths of two men killed outside a post-Super Bowl party in Atlanta, Ravens officials begged him to drop his friends. Eventually, Lewis would be acquitted of murder, become a Super Bowl MVP and begin lecturing rookies about his mistakes. But plenty of players think Lewis had it right in his ultimate response -- delivered in a first-person account in The Magazine nearly a year after the incident: “What does the thug label mean? I come from thugs. Thugs helped get me where I am, helped raise me. If you don’t want me hanging with thugs, then I can’t be on the football field on Sundays, because there are thugs in every huddle.”

Ahlerich is under no illusions about how many of them he can help before they end up in trouble beyond his reach. His 35 contract agents have their own private firms and other clients, and his seven-man staff in New York is stretched thin. “We delude ourselves if we think a bunch of suits on Park Avenue can affect most players,” he sighs.

That’s where the club cops enter the picture. There are still 10 teams that don’t have full-time security chiefs -- from the Cardinals, who play in a college stadium with its own security force, to the Ravens, who won’t deign to say why. But that’s better than when Ahlerich was hired. Only 11 clubs had full-time top cops in ’96; the number has doubled since, paralleling franchise values.

Club cops see the dark side of glamour every day. In Miami, Dolphins security chief Stu Weinstein has been helping the FBI investigate an extortion attempt by Jason Taylor’s stepfather, who was recently jailed for pulling a gun on the defensive end. In New Orleans, security chief Geoff Santini launched an internal probe after his rookie running back, Deuce McAllister, complained that cash had been stolen from his locker.

His findings led the Saints to suspend wide receiver Albert Connell.

The local guys have to be part babysitter, part investment adviser, part chauffeur -- and all thick skin. Because if there’s one certainty, it’s that there will be days when their long hours and planning will come undone. Last spring, Browns coach Butch Davis drafted a University of Washington linebacker named Jeremiah Pharms. At 22, Pharms was married with three kids and had briefly dropped out of school. But Davis, who coached the Miami Hurricanes, had seen him play and got a glowing report from UW coach Rick Neuheisel. The Browns were thus stunned six days later when Seattle prosecutors announced that Pharms was being indicted for pistol-whipping and shooting a campus drug dealer a year earlier. (The case turned on DNA evidence that took that long to analyze.) On Jan.11, Pharms was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. The grand jury investigation into Pharms was held in secret, so NFL Security didn’t know about it. And the Browns didn’t dig that deeply into Pharms’ background because he was only a fifth-round pick. Team officials were red-faced, none more so than Lew Merletti.

Merletti joined the Browns three years ago from the U.S. Secret Service, where he helped guard three presidents. Like Ahlerich, the Browns security guru is polished and media savvy, seeing himself as “a security mentor, not a cop.” But his job still turns on the inevitable conflict between headstrong young millionaires and men paid to worry about the company they keep. That conflict crystallized in one night last November, when three Browns players were busted on drug and weapons felonies -- a trifecta unmatched by any team in league history. Veteran club cops, tired of hearing Browns owner Al Lerner boast about having a man who guarded three presidents watching over his players, chuckled at Merletti’s comeuppance. Two of the players were suspended for a game. The other was cut. Merletti just rolls his eyes over the episode. “We have the issues that any family has,” he says softly. “I tell my guys to call me about anything.”

Merletti, like Ahlerich and the rest of the security gurus who watch over the NFL, understands the end game. Their business is about keeping players on the field so a multibillion-dollar business can keep turning out profits. “If a player is upset with something in his personal life, and he’s not playing well,” says Ahlerich, “we try to fix it. That’s how we help.”

This article appears in the February 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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