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Outside the Lines: Does Character Count in the NFL Draft?

Anchor: Bob Ley
Guests: Brian Billick, Baltimore Ravens head coach
             Laveranues Coles, former Florida State wide receiver
             Kathy Redmond, activist against violence by athletes
Featuring a story reported by Ed Werder
Coordinating producer: Jonathan Ebinger

Bob Ley, Host: April 9, 2000. Every year, NFL draft prospects are measured, timed and tested. But this year, the focus is on one issue, character.

Unidentified Male: Ray Lewis is accused of two counts of murder.

Harold Henderson, Executive Vice President, NFL Management Council: I think that generally clubs do pay attention to character. And this has heightened the attention that they will pay, and there will be a little more in the future.

Unidentified Male: Marv Levy had a great saying. He said, "Personality is what you do when everybody is looking, and character is what you do when no one is looking."

Ley: Today on Outside the Lines, the NFL draft. Does character count?

Announcer: This is ESPN's Outside the Lines. Joining us from ESPN Studios in Bristol, Connecticut, Bob Ley.

Ley: It is a remarkable irony in a league where prospective rookies are tested and evaluated to the limits of science, poked and prodded like NASA astronauts, NFL teams say they increasingly make draft day decisions based on a most subjective quality, a person's character.

Now the NFL is not suddenly recruiting Eagle Scouts to play this violent game. But the league has taken a body blow to its image over the past six months. And the logical argument that the vast majority of NFL players are certainly law abiding individuals runs aground on the chilling fact that two current NFL players are to be tried on first degree murder charges, one of them facing the death penalty.

But even the non-sensational - and isn't it saying something when the domestic assault reports and DUI qualify as that - the non-sensational allegations against the players accumulate. A total of 18 NFL players charged with crimes since September. And that's not counting the criminal charges brought against prominent college players.

Which brings us to the pressures this NFL draft week on clubs that must weigh the crushing need to win now against whether the past problems of a prospect will haunt a draft day decision for seasons to come. General managers and coaches making investments, in some cases tens of millions of dollars, and young players wondering if those millions will buy rare talent or more trouble.

Ed Werder considers this draft dilemma.

Unidentified Male: With the first pick of the draft, the Indianapolis Colts select quarterback Peyton Manning.

Unidentified Male:: From Marshall University, Randy Moss.

Unidentified Male: Quarterback Tim Couch.

Unidentified Male: Their choice in the fifth round, Cecil Collins from McNeese State.

Dave Wannstedt, Dolphins Head Coach: I can remember when we drafted Cecil in the fifth round, we talked about a team that we felt was close. We talked about a potential first-run talent. Get him in the fifth round.

But I can remember Jimmy saying, "Hey, the toughest thing about this call is going to be my reputation. You know, that's what's really at risk here."

Ed Werder, ESPN Correspondent (voice-over): Jimmy Johnson, now the former coach of the Dolphins, misjudged Cecil Collins in last year's draft. The consequences of such mistakes become all the more obvious as Collins sits in Florida's Broward County Jail.

Similar conditions in this draft carry a potentially higher risk as the NFL's image has been damaged by the murder charges pending against Baltimore Ravens Linebacker Ray Lewis and Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth.

As this year's draft approaches, teams are particularly wary, are even more closely scrutinizing potential character flaws.

Bill Walsh, 49ers General Manager: All it takes is one or two players who fail to conform to society on a ball club, and it affects everybody. So we can't tolerate that much.

Jim Fassel, Giants Head Coach: If a guy doesn't have character - and like I determine is if he doesn't have a substance and a character about him, a love of the game, to play the game, and a responsibility about him, I don't care how good he is. It's not going to happen.

Floyd Reese, Titans Exec. Vice President/General Manager: There are some people out there that have a glitch in their record. You have to sit back and determine, now, what kind of glitch was that?

Was he a participant in a fraternity party someplace that was really kind of obscure and yet he got thrown in the middle? Or was he the guy that stole the car or hit the gal or, you know, whatever? And I think you sit back and say, "Well, was he a part of the problem? Or was he the problem?'

Werder: The executive director of the NFL Players' Association, Gene Upshaw, says he fears overreaction to the image problem a league confronts.

Gene Upshaw, Executive Director, NFL Players' Association: We have over 1,800 players. And those 1,800 players, we have about 20 or 30 or so each year that seem to get in trouble.

That's going to continue to be. That's not going to ever change because that's just the way it is.

Werder: The league, however, has created at least the perception of concern. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has formed a task force led by Executive Vice President Harold Henderson to study unacceptable misbehavior by players.

Henderson also oversees background checks performed by NFL security. This year, teams have been provided regarding the off-the-field behavior of 383 draft prospects.

Henderson: We generally acquire information about criminal arrests, convictions, about incidents that have been reported in the media, incidents that the player will tell about, will talk about.

Werder (on camera): ESPN has learned that the NFL does distribute these incident reports to teams even as the league insists it does not.

Henderson: It is the practice of our security department if they should stumble onto that kind of information to not report it to the clubs because it would be prohibitive.

Werder (voice-over): In addition, agents interested in polishing the image of their clients can be another problem. Beyond that, NFL scouts have become leery of college coaches who might refuse to provide full disclosure, opting to shield their players and protect their own reputations as well.

Reese: Before you could go to a coach that would be in some kind of a general session with personnel people. And he would stand up there and say, "This is really a good kid," and everybody would be satisfied with that.

I think those days are over. You know, there are some people that can tell you that - and I'm not saying that they're lying to you - but it's how do you define a good person?

Walsh: We build these so-called monsters ourselves because they never have to account for their behavior through high school, through college. And I worry, really worry, about the job that many colleges do because a lot of inner city young men enroll in the colleges with high hopes and leave the colleges without much of an education and without having changed their values system, without having it molded and them moving on with their life.

>From age 15, they may have the same values they have at age 28. Nothing changes.

Fassel: Sometimes the guy is such a great player and stuff, you know, you might turn your back a little bit to it. But I think people are starting to realize you can't do that.

Werder: Florida State wide receiver Laveranues Coles will be a temptation for many coaches. His 4.17-second speed makes him faster than any Seminoles player ever, including Deion Sanders. But his potential must be balanced against his behavior history.

In 1998, Coles was sentenced to community service for hitting his father's ex-wife during an argument. Last fall, the $421 worth of designer clothing he and teammate Peter Warrick purchased for $21 cost Coles his place on the Florida State team.

Reese: If he went from the first round to the third round, that's an expensive drop. And that's money, that's big money they may never, ever be able to make up. And to have that as a result of something you did a year ago or six months ago is really sad for them.

Upshaw: We're dealing with 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kids that see the world a lot different than we saw it at that same age.

Werder (on camera): Coles' nickname is trouble. And it snugly fits a player who just completed his second stint of community service on Thursday and the next day met with the Jacksonville Jaguars for what ostensibly was a job interview.

Coles and other potential draftees will know next weekend how much their off-the-field behavior has cost them in terms of draft status. But the teams will have to wait a lot longer to determine if those players were worth the risk.

For Outside the Lines, I'm Ed Werder.

Ley: In a moment, we will be joined by Laveranues Coles and Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick, along with Kathy Redmond, a critic of special treatment for violent athletes, all on Outside the Lines.

Ley: Welcome back. The topic: character in the NFL draft.

And joining us from Baltimore, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, Head Coach Brian Billick. From Jacksonville, former Florida State wide receiver and hopeful NFL draft choice Laveranues Coles. And from Denver, Kathy Redmond, who founded the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

Brian, let me begin with you. A number of NFL teams have taken players off their draft board because of off-field issues. It's been reported anywhere between six and 10 off the Denver Broncos draft board. Have you X'd out some players already for consideration this coming weekend?

Brian Billick, Ravens Head Coach: Well, as usual when you get to this point in our evaluation, there are a couple of players that we'll look at, look at their history, look at their culpability and whatever instances that may have happened and just decide that we're not going to include them on our draft board.

Ley: About how many would you say that is this year?

Billick: Well, it would be hard to quantify. You know, I wouldn't want to put a specific number to it. There's usually in any given year between a half-dozen players, maybe a few more, that you're going to look it and just decide that they're not going to fit the parameters you're going to go with.

Ley: With NFL draft info, I know they're like nuclear codes. And if you want to dodge this question, you can. But Laveranues Coles, is he on your draft board still?

Billick: Yeah, Laveranues is a young man that we've looked at, as many teams have. It's a difficult dynamic because you're talking about things that happen to young people throughout the country.

And you don't want to make excuses for them. You don't want to justify it. But by the same token, you're not going to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak, and put a stamp on everybody that's had any kind of incident whatsoever.

Ley: Well, Laveranues, you told ESPN The Magazine that you thought the Ravens had written you off. Is this good news for you?

Lavernues Coles, former Florida State Player: Yes, this is very good news for me. I'm very excited about having the opportunity to try and get an opportunity to play in the NFL. So I'm just thankful that they're considering me.

Ley: Let me ask you a direct question, why are you here with us this morning?

Coles: I'm here to talk about some of the incidents that has happened and the character issues that a lot of us athletes have had in the past, and how a lot of athletes nowadays have tarnished some of us players now.

Ley: So you would put yourself not in the group that has tarnished the other athletes?

Coles: Yes, I've kind of made a bad name for myself and other athletes also. I mean, we've all kind of fallen into that mold of being bad people. And I think that a lot of times a lot of the mistakes we make are not just mistakes made on purpose. I think we all do some things, that's not to say unintentionally, but unintentionally. And things are made bad for themselves.

Ley: Kathy Redmond, let me ask you this. That tape of the shopping expedition that Laveranues and Peter had at Dillard's is infamous. I'm sure you followed the progress of Peter Warrick and Laveranues through the Florida judicial system. What was your opinion of that trip through the judicial system?

Kathy Redmond, Founder, National Coalition Against Violent Athletes: I felt that the judicial system worked rather quickly when they were dealing with Peter Warrick mainly because he was being suspended during that time, and suspended during the outcome of the case. So I was very amazed that the court system moved so fast when most NFL players and most college players can basically decide their length of time that they will spend in court.

Ley: I'm going to roll on a piece of tape. This is Lawrence Philips back in April of 1997 being picked up at the jailhouse door having just - actually, why don't we look at Lawrence Taylor actually here. And there is Lawrence Philips coming out of jail, Dick Vermeil is there, the head coach of the Rams, to pick him up at the jailhouse and take him off.

Brian Billick, would you have ever put yourself in that situation to pick up a player at the jailhouse door?

Billick: Well, you have to look at circumstances. For the most part, you're talking about young people.

I've coached college ball as well as professional ball. And you have a certain obligation to support your player, to be somewhat of a mentor or counselor hopefully and to help them move through some of these issues that they have to deal with.

What you can't account for is what their actions are going to be later on and that those actions that you do are misconstrued as supporting anything that they might have done.

Ley: Kathy, your reaction to seeing a piece of footage like that?

Redmond: Well, I know I've heard people like Tom Osmond (ph) say they're a father figure and they're a mentor and a counselor to these guys. What I know that my father, had that had happened to me, would not have picked me up. He would have let me rot there basically.

Ley: Laveranues, you're now making the rounds of teams. How direct are the questions? Give me a sample question that's been asked across the table of you from teams about what you've been through off the field?

Coles: Teams will pretty much ask me. And they let me pretty much explain it in my own words what happened. They ask me starting during my years in high schools and then come on up through my years in college and talk about all the different obstacles I faced off the field.

Ley: How much money do you think you may have cost yourself?

Coles: Probably quite a bit of money. I mean, I felt like if I had played this whole season, I probably could have made it into the top 15 players draft. But being with these off-the-field problems, I don't know how far I'm going to slide. Hopefully, someone will just give me the opportunity.

Ley: We had a quick look before at Lawrence Taylor. Perhaps we can roll that tape in again. And there's a piece of tape that "Sports Century" shot with Lawrence Taylor wearing the bandana and the glasses and sitting there casually dressed.

The National Football League asked for a copy of that show so that they could show it to NFL players and rookies basically to how not represent themselves at a prominent interview. And Brian Billick, we understand that at Cleveland this past week, when Peter Warrick showed up for his interview, he wore camouflaged fatigues. Can that - that has to make an impression on potential employers if someone comes in dressed - and possibly as the number one draft pick - wearing fatigues?

Billick: Well, you're going to use any number of different criteria to measure the character is of a given individual. As you said in your opening piece, this is the hardest thing for us to quantify. We've got a plethora of data, whether it be 40 times, height, weight. You've got countless hours of tape and film that you can look at about a player and about his playing abilities.

But you also have to find out about the person. Now you can interview coaches, family members, friends. But as you said, sometimes their agendas, their views, can be somewhat biased. So it's a hard thing to cut through.

And all you can really do with these players, whether they're currently in the NFL or coming into the NFL, they're adults. They have the free agency to do as they please. What you've got to try to do is counsel them to understand the environment they're coming into and how they put themselves at risk with a given behavior.

Ley: That's a big issue. As we continue, we'll be discussing how the NFL has been handling the off-field conduct of players and looking at some hard numbers and seeing whether the NFL is making improvement. We'll be right back.

Ley: We continue our discussion about the NFL draft and character with the head coach of the Ravens, Brian Billick, NFL hopeful pick Laveranues Coles, and anti-violence advocate Kathy Redmond.

Kathy, I'm going to put a graphic up for the folks at home that shows the NFL having established a program in '97 to evaluate off-field conduct. Thirty-nine players in '97, 36 in '98, this past year 28, 10 players total fined and suspended, the suspensions within the last month. What do those numbers say to you?

Redmond: What they say to me is it actually looks like things have gotten better. But what's really happening is that their crimes are getting worse, and people aren't reporting them anymore.

If you think as many of us, many of the victims are 18 to 24 years old. They are not seasoned in the world. If you think that they're going to have the courage and guts to go up against the NFL, then you're kidding yourselves.

They're not going to make the reports. We all know what happens. And so they're not going to do it.

In fact, I have an agreement from a college that was given to a victim. And I have other agreements like this from other schools, Division I schools, that say, "We will let you stay at school if you do not prosecute." That's the problem.

Ley: Well, Brian, your own boss Art Modell said, "I just don't think there's anything the league office can truly do to help with this problem." And Wayne Huizenga of the Dolphins, when he looked at those numbers at the recent meeting, came out, and said they threw up numbers, said they're making progress. It doesn't seem that way.

You moderated the discussion with the owners at the recent owners' meeting. What did the owners want to know? What was that dialogue like?

Billick: Well, basically it was an open exchange of seeing what the different clubs are doing regarding these issues. I'm not trying to diffuse the situation at all or pass off responsibility of the league or the club. But I think there's an incredible amount of resources being expended by the league and the individual clubs, probably more so than any other industry you could find, that want to address this issue.

What we have to understand is that we could increase those resources and focus by tenfold, and there are still going to be problems. What we can't do is give in to the frustration and say, "Hey, no matter what we do, it doesn't help, so why do anything?" You can't just throw your hands up and say "I'm not going to try anymore" because what you can't quantify is do the mentoring and counseling programs that the league and individual clubs do have - what you can't quantify is how many athletes, how many young men, have been in situations that were potentially volatile, saw what was going on - maybe something kicked in from those counseling sessions - and removed themselves or didn't conduct themselves in a certain way because of the counseling that they've received.

Ley: Laveranues, in our taped report from Ed Werder, we heard Bill Walsh say, "We build up these so-called monsters because they're never held accountable from a young age for their behavior." Do you agree with that?

Coles: Some instances, yes. Some instances, no. I mean, a lot of us have had accountability for our behavior, such as I. I mean, I wasn't built up as a monster.

I failed my family and friends. And the people that was around me helped raise me pretty good, put a lot of character in myself. And also, I feel like I did a good job with myself also. I just stumbled quite a bit during my college years, before my college years.

Previously, I had no record or anything in my past. So for me, I just stumbled quite a bit at a very vulnerable time when I was in a fish bowl.

So for me, I don't think in my instance that that is that case. But in other instances, yes.

Ley: Let's talk about accountability, Kathy Redmond. Your advocacy in this area comes from the allegations you brought against Christian Peter. You claimed you were assaulted by him. You saw New England draft him in the fifth r round several years ago and then three days later let him go. What was your assessment of the Patriots' decision to wait three days?

Redmond: I think what was happening is that the Patriots weren't expecting the public outcry that they got. And I think that that's where the power lies with the fans.

I believe the Patriots knew everything about his background, just like every NFL team does. And they decide to take a risk. And I would like to see someday where a team gets sued by a victim for taking that risk because right now these teams don't have any accountability.

And what I find odd is - and this could be addressed to Brian - what I find out is have you ever heard of a coach's daughter or a coach's wife being attacked by one of the players? That goes straight to discipline.

Ley: Brian.

Billick: Well, I have a wife and I have two daughters. And obviously, I would take any action towards them by anybody very seriously. But the question I would then turn around and ask, whether it be Laveranues or any other athlete that has had some type of transgression, that whatever the process, the legal process, they've gone through, they've gone through whatever sanctions have taken place, are we saying that these athletes or these individuals, where do we draw the line?

No, they're not going to be allowed in the NFL. No, they're not going to be allowed to become stock brokers. No, they're not going to be allowed to go any employment. Are we saying they shouldn't be allowed to go into any employment whatsoever with anybody simply because of errors that they've made?

Redmond: No...

Ley: Kathy, when is enough enough?

Redmond: ... Well, all I'm saying basically in just response to his question is if we treated everybody's daughter or everybody's wife as we would our own, as the coaches would their own, we wouldn't have the problems because there would be no way that that player would be allowed back on that team had he assaulted or raped one of the coach's daughters.

Billick: Well, I can promise you, Ms. Redmond, regardless of whether it was a member of our administration, if someone we knew personally, we would take any violent action against anybody very seriously. It doesn't have to be someone we know. We do take this very serious.

We have both moral and ethical obligations with regards to these players, but just from a business standpoint. And I don't want to diminish the other end of it. We have a tremendous amount of resources extended to these players. And from a strictly business standpoint, if we don't think we're going to get a return from these athletes because of these off-field instances and they're not going to be available to us, we're not going to have these athletes here...

Redmond: But...

Billick: ... So besides the moral and ethical application, business-wise, it's not good business to involve yourself with these types of people. So you can be assured that as a league we'll address that very directly.

Redmond: But...

Ley: Brian, you - go ahead, Kathy. Quickly, please.

Redmond: ... But business-wise, though, wouldn't it make sense then that if an athlete commits a crime and you're paying him a lot of money and he might not be on the field because of his crime, doesn't it make good business sense to help cover that up?

Ley: One sentence, Brian, please.

Billick: Well, we're not going to try to cover anything up. We're not going to counter due process. We're going to let due process take care of itself. And if greater authority than us, whether it be the league or the countries or the state or the national government wants to sanction these players, then we'll support that.

Ley: That's where I'll have to jump in. Thank you very much, Brian Billick, Laveranues Coles, and Kathy Redmond for joining us to talk about character in the NFL draft.

Outside the Lines will continue in just a moment as we continue on Sunday morning on ESPN.

Ley: Tuesday evening, Outside the Lines Primetime will examine the problem of hazing in sports from high school to the pros, including Major League Baseball and the NFL. Two summers ago, there was an infamous hazing incident, and New Orleans Saints wide receiver Andy McCollough describes it for Outside the Lines.

Andy McCollough, New Orleans Saints: They were on him bad. He was just getting hit with a left, with a right. I mean, some guy had like a trash can and a bag of coins. And as he was running through, I just was like, "Man, please let Louis, let him get through this safely.'

Ley: "Rites and Wrongs: Hazing in Sports." That's Outside the Lines Primetime this Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. Eastern right after SportsCenter.

And we'll have a final word on this Sunday right after this.

Ley: This reminder, if you missed any portion of Outside the Lines on character and the NFL draft, you can catch the re-air on ESPN2 in two hours at p.m. Eastern time. We will see you here next Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m. Eastern with our next edition of Outside the Lines.

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 Bob Ley talks with Brian Billick, Laveranues Coles and Kathy Redmond about the character of NFL draft hopefuls.
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