Aug 262012
 

Author’s Note: When dealing with the NFL, it is a given that some of our writing is going to focus on some of the stupid deeds and words that come from the players, coaches, and owners of the NFL. When one considers the massive egos of the individuals involved, the amount of money that people are being paid, and the incredible spotlight that most of us will never experience, it is understandable that not all of the things said and done will be the best things to say and do. And in part that is our bread and butter; picking up on such words and actions and having reactions as only fans can. Then there is the part of the NFL that we are all aware of… the hours of community service done by players and coaches, and the donations of money and supplies that are generously given out each year. Sure, these are not entirely selfless acts (is there really any such thing?), but often used to promote the image of the player, teams, or league as being invested in the community and spinning good PR while also impacting people’s lives. Perhaps the most touching of these are the numerous stories that I read, seemingly every week, about NFL players who take the time to offer a disadvantaged child, often one with a grave medical condition, a unique opportunity to spend time with his or her favorite players and favorite team. These are stories that warm the heart, even if only for a few minutes before the next player is arrested for DUI and Mike Florio’s arrest meter is set back to zero.

Today’s article is the first of a recurring series where we will take a brief look at some of the men and women who have gone well above and beyond the expected team contributions to the community and have truly invested themselves in utilizing their own success to make the world a better place. These role models are not put forth to challenge other NFL players and personnel to do the same, but to encourage each of us to think about the impact that we have on the world via our own means and contributions. As fans with day (or night) jobs, we may not have the same resources that these people have to share, but we can certainly replicate their spirit.

An Eventful Flight

While I do not spend my professional life on the road, both my day job and my consulting practice give me the opportunity to travel on a somewhat regular basis. For those of you who spend all of your time on the road, you will laugh when I say that “regular” for me generally means I can expect to make three or four business trips a year. That won’t seem like much to regular travelers, but I also know way too many people who have never left their home state. Some years I have made as many as ten trips, and as the consulting work picks up I expect I will be spending more time on the road.

When on the road, the greatest accomplishment in traveling is the uneventful trip; that is, the trip with no flight delays, no unscheduled nights in hotels, and no phone calls to roadside assistance. I love flying and don’t even mind airports. I also find driving to be very relaxing, but like most travelers I can’t stand the inconveniences that can quickly turn a trip into a massive headache. Thus, a successful trip for me is one that I can describe as uneventful; the process of getting there was convenient, and no major troubles happened along the way.

Thus it was that I boarded a flight from Tampa to Atlanta in early 2009 with the hope of two uneventful flights on my way home from a conference. I took the opportunity to upgrade myself to First Class despite the ribbing of a colleague who was also on the trip. I was flying Air Tran, and for $25 a leg it was a pretty economical decision to acquire extra leg room, complementary refreshments, and the opportunity to take a deep breath after five very busy days. As I sat down there was even the possibility that I would have a row to myself, as the seat next to me was unoccupied. But right before the cabin doors closed a young African American gentleman boarded the plane  and took the seat. His face was one that I immediately knew to be familiar, although I am horrible at placing names and faces and could not identify the young man. However, others in the First Class cabin had clearly made the connection and within three minutes one of the flight attendants approached our row and leaning across me asked if Mr. Dunn would be so kind as to offer an autograph.

I must admit to having two very different reactions at that moment. My first was to think, “Wow… it’s pretty cool to be sitting down next to one of the real good guys of the NFL.” I knew of Warrick Dunn’s reputation as a tireless contributor to his communities in both Tampa and Atlanta, and always admired his attitude. My other reaction wasn’t as generous. I immediately wondered if this guy next to me was just another pompous athlete who just did a better job of hiding it that T.O., Chad, or a host of other players. But as the air of reverence in the cabin was becoming palpable, I also began to wonder if this poor guy even wanted to be bothered by anyone or just wanted to be left alone. Not sure what to do, and being a fairly strong introvert myself who appreciates a little quiet on the plane, I just glanced at Mr. Dunn and pulled out a book I was reading at the time.

Sensing my discomfort, Dunn looked at me and smiled. I looked up to see his hand extended my way, with him saying “Hi… I’m obviously Warrick.” I laughed, shook his hand, and offered my name in exchange. For the next few minutes, he politely inquired as to where I was from and what I was doing in Tampa. I did the same, and realized he was making what seemed to be a fairly routine trip to Atlanta for work with his foundation. I was wearing a New England Patriots coat, and he inquired as to how someone living in the Midwest came to be a Pats fan, so I shared my story. He indicated a respect for the organization, and for Bill Belichick in particular. As we spoke for a couple of minutes, I found him to be very willing to talk about football, which honestly surprised me a little, so I began to ask about his career. He was far more forthcoming than I expected, but also incredibly modest. He spoke of the wonderful opportunities that he had to showcase his gifts, yet also was very willing to share his opinions about one particular former head coach that he played for. The balance between humility and candor appealed to me, and the conversation got on a roll. It was when I asked about his charitable work that he seemed to shut down a bit, and he simply indicated that he didn’t talk about that. I respected his space and didn’t pursue it further, though it was clear that I was interested in hearing what it was that really motivated him to give back as he does. He pulled out an electronic device (I believe it was an iPad), I did the same, and we both settled in for a somewhat quiet portion of the flight.

It was a flight attendant who broke the silence, coming over to thank Mr. Dunn for all of his work, and telling him how much the entire flight crew respected him. He clearly wasn’t comfortable with the praise and did his best to smile through it and thank her for her comments. He turned to me and explained that it was hard for him to talk about his community work, then asked me if I would do him a favor. I was taken aback to say the least. What favor could Warrick Dunn possibly want from me? I can only imagine the look on my face as I looked over at him and said, “Sure. What can I do?” His response surprised me. “I wrote a book called Running For My Life. Promise me that you’ll read it, since you really seem interested in knowing about this.” I smiled and promised him I would do just that. Surprisingly, he then began talking about the homes that he builds, how moving it was to him to see the expressions of people not just as they received a home that they never thought they would have, but also as they walked in and saw that every amenity had been provided, and that every detail had been attended to. I sat awestruck to hear his passion; it was genuine and it was clear to me that this man had been not only been raised with the right values, but he had been able to maintain those values through a successful NFL career that might have taken them from a lesser man. After a while we moved away from his work, and he began inquiring about mine. The rest of the flight focused on my professional life, with him seemingly genuinely interested in what I was doing, as he offered commentary about the importance of motivating young people. I even made a comment to him that we should bring him in as a guest speaker, which led to the most awkward moment of the flight as he said, “You know I can’t do that for free…” I laughed and told him I knew, and that we were used to dealing with talent and fees. I told him that I thought he could be especially impactful with student athletes, who often struggle with being both a student and an athlete. When the flight landed in Tampa, I must admit to being disappointed that the conversation was coming to a close, and he was kind enough to linger for a moment to offer a kind goodbye before heading down the concourse to exit the airport.

The very next day I was standing in line at Barnes and Noble, purchasing Dunn’s book. It was a quick but emotional read. I was only vaguely aware of Dunn’s story prior to reading the book, and probably had heard and forgotten the story of how hard his (single) mother worked as a police officer in Baton Rouge to insure that her children had opportunities to succeed in life, how she was gunned down in cold blood by three armed robbers, and how Warrick had to assume the role of family leader to raise his siblings. I read about his difficult decision to attend Florida State over LSU, about some of the painful family dynamics that he encountered, how he traveled to the Louisiana State Penitentiary to confront one of his mother’s killers, and how he has battled depression throughout his adult life. For all of the privileges that Dunn has experienced as a result of his physical skills, it is clear that he has been though an arduous journey but come out intact and level-headed. Dunn was drafted with the 12th pick in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft by the Buccaneers, and he immediately became a Pro Bowl player on his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He played five season for the Buccanners before moving to the Atlanta Falcons for six seasons before returning to Tampa for his final season in 2008. Dunn’s career was a model of consistency, and he finished with over 10,000 rushing yards (10,967), 510 receptions for another 4,339 yards, and a total of 135 touchdowns. He ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns in a playoff win over the Rams in the 2004 season and appeared in ten playoff games in his career.

As a member of his community, Dunn’s contributions are well documented.  Dunn established the Homes for the Holidays (HFTH) program in 1997, and started Warrick Dunn Charities (WDC) in 2002 as a way to grow programs and services. The HFTH program rewards single-parent families for reaching first-time homeownership. HFTH recipient families are chosen through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity affiliates and WDC with complete home furnishings and down-payment assistance. To date, HFTH has assisted over 115 single parents and over 300 dependents in Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Tampa and Tallahassee.

Dunn received a Giant Steps Award in civic leadership from former President Bill Clinton for his program. In 2005, Dunn was presented with the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award; the award is the only NFL award that recognizes a player for his community service as well as for his excellence on the field. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Dunn challenged all NFL players, except for those who play for the New Orleans Saints, to donate at least $5,000 to the effort. The effort received over $5 million in contributions. In 2007, along with other athletes, Dunn founded Athletes for Hope, a charitable organization that helps professional athletes, sports industry professionals and fans get involved in charitable causes. For his exceptional involvement on and off the field, Dunn was awarded with the 2009 Bart Starr Award. He also received a Jefferson Award for Outstanding Athlete in Service and Philanthropy in 2011. In July 2012, WDC launched Betty’s Hope, named after Dunn’s mother, Betty Smothers, as a children’s bereavement program to empower youth as they manage their grief in a responsive environment to heal and enhance their quality of life. Based in Baton Rouge, Betty’s Hope creates safe environments for support that are relevant, responsive and fun, through a mobile programming module that offers peer-group based grief support, community advocacy and awareness, parent/caregiver support, education and resources, and community support and training.

Dunn’s list of accomplishments as a human being are impressive, but not nearly as impressive as his story. Now retired from football, Dunn is a minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons, and is committed to continuing to improve the lives of others. I challenge anyone to read Running For My Life and to remain unmoved. Dunn’s contributions are not only a shining example of what good can be accomplished by a successful athlete, but also a reminder that we all have obstacles to overcome in life, and how we navigate those obstacles, and the product we become as a result, is the true character of who we are.

While I still enjoy having my uneventful trips, I consider myself quite lucky to have had one very eventful trip with a pretty special human being, and for that I owe Warrick Dunn my thanks.

Jun 192012
 

Sometimes people just don’t know when to quit.

I think most football fans are just about sick of the Bountygate story and the continuing denials emerging from current and former members of the New Orleans Saints. It has already been established by Sean Pamphillon that Drew Brees, Scott Fujita and the NFLPA have worked together to seek to pin all of Bountygate on the coaches. Jonathan Vilma seems to have taken point on criticizing Roger Goodell and the NFL, but Drew Brees has been sure to get his shots in where he can. Such was the case this Monday on Twitter, where Brees wrote, “If NFL fans were told there were “weapons of mass destruction” enough times, they’d believe it. But what happens when you don’t find any????”

Drew Brees is making the comparison of Bountygate to the falsified evidence used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Seriously.

Whether or not he believes the nonsense he is spewing, Brees is now elevating his hyperbole to a disturbingly alarming level. Where do we even begin to de-construct the myth that Brees is seeking to create?

Do we start with the ludicrousness of comparing a sports situation to a predetermined political decision by former President George W. Bush that resulted in an illegal invasion, the deaths of 4,409 American servicemen and women, and an estimated 109,000+ deaths overall? Does Drew really want to compare his alleged plight to the millions of people who had their lives ended or disrupted as a result of armed conflict? Really?

Even if you excuse Brees’ bravado, the pieces of information available to us prior to this week’s hearings as well as the information released yesterday simply do not support the idea that the players stand falsely accused. As I detailed on June 7,  the Saints had engaged in an historic use of bounties and had been repeatedly warned by the league to discontinue the practice. Players were documented as having contributed and receiving bounty money for various impact plays and a ledger was even found with proof of payouts to players. There is zero question that the Saints, over a long period of time (multiple seasons), maintained a pay for performance system that is explicitly forbidden under NFL rules. And the players were so brazen about the practice that in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, Mike Hargrove (one of the players implicated in the scandal) can be heard running off the field shouting, “Pay me my money” after he believed that he had injured Brett Favre. Couple all of this with admissions from the New Orleans Saints and their coaches, and the assertions of Brees and others simply don’t add up. And that was before new evidence was released at the hearing yesterday.

To be sure, the NFL has entirely botched the release of supporting information. I am not sure where they are getting their advice on how to present a case, but they would be well served to take another approach. Although the NFL released only 200 pages of an estimated 500,000 page collection, much of the information released (according to Mike Florio at PFT) was in essence irrelevant. But a few key points were not, and Brees is not choosing to address these points because he knows damn well that it does not support his attempt to create a distraction to draw people’s eyes away from the facts of the case. But among the pieces of information released yesterday, we did learn that several players offered money to make plays on Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, and that this included Jonathan Vilma offering $10,000 for anyone who could take Favre out of the game.

Other evidence? One document noted that Charles Grant offered $10,000 for a quarterback takeout pool, while Scott Fujita and Will Smith both contributed money to what was known as a “general pool.” Darren Sharper also contributed money for Pick-6’s and QB hits. Another document had Vilma, Smith, and Grant down for contributions, as well as Scott Shanle, Leigh Torrence, and Troy Evans. An even more disturbing document tallied “Kill the Head” (undefined) totals in 2010, with Vilma leading the way with 62 tallies. And another document recorded the awarding of $1,000 to Roman Harper for a “cart-off.”

Finally, a slide included in the NFL’s presentation contained a photo of “Dog the Bounty Hunter” with the notation “Must suspect be delivered dead or alive?” Even the NFLPA knew this piece of information looked bad, as they referenced the photo as “a poorly chosen and ironic example to use.” That’s putting it mildly.

It is with all of this information in hand that Drew Brees wants us to believe that the evidence against the players is no better than falsified information that led to an American war. Riiiight.

Until recently, I saw the Bountygate scandal as an unfortunate blemish on a touching, feel-good story for the Saints and the city of New Orleans. But it’s never the crime that does the real damage; instead it is always the cover up. And that is the case here as well. The continued proclamations of unfairness by the NFL made by Scott Fujita, Janathan Vilma, and Drew Brees have, at least for me, forever tarnished the accomplishments of the Saints franchise and their Super Bowl win. I will stop well short of calling for an asterisk like many unthinking fans will, but it is simply unforgivable in my view for the players to continue acting like six year old children standing over a broken lamp proclaiming, “I didn’t do it.” When pressed, the six year old insists they didn’t do it and that they don’t know who did… it might have been the dog or the lamp fairies. Well Mr. Brees, there are no lamp fairies. And just like the 6 year old who eventually admits their misdeeds, I rather suspect there will be a long delayed but inevitable admission on the part of some of the players involved. Just because you can fight a public relations battle with the National Football League doesn’t mean you should.

Now Mr. Brees, please shut up and go stand in the corner.

UPDATE: Brees has apparently figured out that the WMD analogy was not a good idea. Five hours ago, he sent the following tweets:

– My WMD comment has nothing to do with politics or our brave military. Merely an analogy to show how media influences public perception

– I apologize if the WMD comment offended anyone. Especially our military. There is no one I respect more than our service men and women

At least he realizes that his comment may have been offensive. However, the tweet really was not critical of the troops, but could instead be interpreted as being critical of the Bush administration and/or seeking to trivialize an event that led to the deaths of more than 100,000 people. In any event, Brees has once again proven the adage that it is better to be perceived as a fool versus opening one’s mouth (or Twitter account) and removing all doubt.

Jun 072012
 

I really enjoy Pro Football Talk (PFT). While most football blogs are nothing more than a mere regurgitation of  news items, PFT engages in thoughtful analysis and explores the implications of various situations and actions in the NFL. In some ways, PFT was a spark for our writers to pull together and create Gridiron Rats. We want to see more of a fan perspective, while also being thoughtful, analytical, and fun. But we will always tip our hat to Mike Florio for creating a wonderful site which has now become a part of NBC Sports.

Still, I sometimes think that Florio’s training as a lawyer can be his undoing. Early this morning, Florio posted an article suggesting that the most recent Bountygate report, involving the injury to Lions’ tackle Jeff Backus, might somehow undermine NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s assertion that the Saints used a pay for injury system. This was based on an earlier story on Yahoo! by Mike Silver noting that Sean Pamphilon had provided evidence of payments being made for clean hits in last year’s Saints wildcard playoff win over the Lions. The logic that Florio draws out is that because cash was paid for clean hits, but that no cash was paid out for an injury (torn biceps) to Backus, then the bounty system allegations are undermined because whoever injured Backus should have been paid.

Really, Mike?

Perhaps Florio is merely playing Devil’s Advocate, as his legal training has taught him to do. And that is certainly my hope. But in reading his site, I have sometimes found Florio’s logic to be more twisted than a carnival pretzel. So let’s help Mike remember why this most recent article does not undermine Goodell’s conclusions, and in this case I need look no further than one of the people who commented on Florio’s article.

Here is what we know about the Bounty allegations:

1. Roger Goodell and the NFL had warned the Saints not to use a bounty system on at least three occasions over a period of three years.

2. As recently as the 2011 system, the Saints were paying bounties despite those warnings.

3. Gregg Williams is on tape urging the infliction of injuries.

4. In the 2009 NFC Championship Game, Mike Hargrove (one of the players implicated in the scandal) can be heard running off the field shouting, “Pay me my money” after he believed that he had injured Brett Favre.

5. A ledger was discovered documenting payment to players. Additionally, Sean Pamphilon watched some of those payments being made.

6. Denials from players are carefully parsed. Players claim that they never paid money nor ever intended to pay money. But players are not alleging that they were never offered money.

7. The New Orleans Saints have acknowledged using a bounty system and apologies have been offered by both Gregg Williams and Sean Payton.

8. Early statements from players acknowledged a bounty system, but then were recanted as misquotes.

I work in an area where civil law applies, and I have had plenty of opportunities both to present cases and to rule on cases involving complicated fact patterns. Anyone familiar with the civil law system knows that it functions on the basis of a preponderance of the evidence, or what is more likely than not to be true (the 50.1% standard). In layman’s parlance, if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then we call it a duck.

This case is a damn duck.

The Jeff Backus injury is a red herring, and Florio (and others) should know this. According to Backus, a defensive player made a move to the inside and Backus hooked him, causing his bicep to pop. Thus, it was an accidental injury not caused by a Saints player. Exactly why would a payment be made? And then by extension, how would an absence of a payment undermine any of the information detailed above? I don’t need all eight of the points above to be able to conclude that it is far more likely than not that the Saints employed a bounty system. In truth, the first five are sufficient in my view to be able to reach a reasonable conclusion that such a system was being employed as late as last season. But #7 (the admission) is where this case becomes academic. Any protests of innocence by the players fall on deaf ears when the organization itself has admitted its misdeeds.

We therefore arrive back at my impatience and displeasure with current and former Saints’ players who try to deny the existence of the bounty system, as well as for all of the Saints fans who would prefer to deny evidence and simply conclude that the rest of the world is ‘hating on” the Saints. I have newsflash for those people. As a Patriots fan, I can appreciate the world ganging up on your team without a rational review of the evidence. Spygate was made out to be a “Patriots only” sin, when in fact the incident in question was a retaliation for earlier videotaping by the New York Jets, and was considered to be a widespread practice throughout the NFL. To call three Super Bowl championships into doubt as a result of Spygate is preposterous, and in my view is nothing more than hatred and jealousy being directed towards a successful organization. But I can never claim that the Patriots did not knowingly engage in a practice that they knew to be a violation of league rules, and it would be disingenuous for me to do so. Similarly, it is disingenuous of any current or former Saints’ player or any Saints fan to look at this evidence and suggest that no bounty system was employed.

Getting back to PFT, any suggestion that the failure to pay a bounty to the Saints defender who was involved on the play where Backus was injured is both illogical and unconnected to the rest of the facts in the case. I love reading Mike Florio’s work, but this one was a pretty bad reach and forgets the context of the overall case. I rather suspect that this is born of the frustration that the league has until now not come forward to make its case to the public, which would please many people, especially those of us who write about the NFL.

Perhaps, if this case were being tried in a criminal court, a conviction that the Saints employed a bounty system might not be forthcoming. Whether by some technical rule or by the opinion of one juror in twelve, it is not hard to imagine the organization or the players being cleared of wrongdoing in criminal court. But this is not criminal court, and the same rules do not apply here. And much to the displeasure of Saints players (and their attorneys), this case is quacking.

Jun 042012
 

The attorney for Jonathan Vilma thinks we’re all just being unfair.

When faced with damning evidence that his client paid up to $1000 for hits resulting in an opponent being carted off the field, Peter Ginsberg engages in a clumsy bit of rhetorical slight-of-hand. When required to say something that is a bald-faced lie:

“The truth is that Jonathan Vilma gave no money, incentive or encouragement ever — not at any time in his eight-year career — to injure or knock out of any game any player…”

It’s a simple matter to qualify said statement just enough to make it not a lie:

“…with a dirty or unsportsmanlike hit.”

This is, of course, entirely true. Vilma (and others on the Saints) are not accused of paying bounties for hits that are illegal; they are accused of paying bounties for hits that cause injury. Whether or not the hits were technically “legal” is beside the point. By the same token, this is a true statement:

“The truth is that O.J. Simpson did not kill his ex-wife and her friend…”

If you qualify it properly:

“…with a gun.”

Sadly, Yahoo! Sports goes along for the ride:

“According to STATS, LLC, Vilma has played in 42 games since 2009 and has been penalized three times in that span. Two-thirds of NFL defensive players who played in 40 or more games during that same period were penalized more than Vilma.”

Oh, well, that’s alright, then. A slightly better than average linebacker has committed slightly fewer than average penalties. Therefore, he couldn’t possibly have paid others for knocking opposing players out of games.

Seems legit.

May 222012
 

 

New Orleans Saints

Head Coach: Sean Payton (suspended)

 

Projected Starting Quarterback: Drew Brees

2011 Record:  13 wins, 3 losses (1st in NFC South)

1-1 in postseason (lost in Divisional round)

1st in Total Offense, 24th in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 90 wins, 70 losses (8th in NFL)

5 wins, 3 losses in postseason

1-0 in Super Bowl appearances

1-0 All-time in Super Bowl

May 222012
 

 

Atlanta Falcons

Head Coach: Mike Smith

Projected Starting Quarterback: Matt Ryan

2011 Record:  10 wins, 6 losses (2nd in NFC South)

0-1 in postseason (lost in Wildcard round)

10th in Total Offense, 12th in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 87 wins, 72 losses, 1 tie (10th in NFL)

2 wins, 5 losses in postseason

No Super Bowl appearances

0-1 All-time in Super Bowl

May 222012
 

 

Carolina Panthers

Head Coach: Ron Rivera

Projected Starting Quarterback: Cam Newton

2011 Record:  6 wins, 10 losses (3rd in NFC South)

No postseason appearance

7th in Total Offense, 28th in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 79 wins, 81 losses (17th in NFL)

4 win, 3 losses in postseason

0-1 in Super Bowl appearances

0-1 All-time in Super Bowl

May 222012
 

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Head Coach: Greg Schiano

Projected Starting Quarterback: Josh Freeman

2011 Record:  4 wins, 12 losses (4th in NFC South)

No postseason appearance

21st in Total Offense, 30th in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 74 wins, 86 losses (T-20th in NFL)

3 win, 2 losses in postseason

1-0 in Super Bowl appearances

1-0 All-time in Super Bowl