The San Diego Chargers are among the National Football League's great successes. Record-setting running back LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the game's most dynamic stars, has helped them to an 11-2 record that is tied for the best in the league. But like many other NFL teams this season, the Chargers have seen their performance on the field clouded by their players' actions off it.
One Charger, safety Terrence Kiel, was arrested by Drug Enforcement Administration agents at the team's practice facility in September on charges of transporting and possessing a controlled substance. Another, linebacker Steve Foley, was shot and wounded by an off-duty police officer in an incident in which Foley was charged with drunken driving. And it was learned recently that unidentified Charger players were cleared in another DEA probe that has been passed on to another agency.
At least 35 NFL players have been arrested this year on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to felony burglary, a number that alarms league and players' union officials. "We can handle all the other issues, but this is the one that concerns me the most," NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw said.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declined an interview request.
"Most NFL players are good citizens, and some are outstanding citizens," Greg Aiello, the NFL's vice president of public relations, said via e-mail yesterday. "It's a small percentage of the 2,000 players in our league that becomes involved in incidents that do not reflect well on the NFL. We have policies and programs to deal aggressively with those issues, and we will continue to do so. The goal is to eliminate all such negative conduct. That may not be realistic, but that is the goal."
No one keeps annual statistics on arrests of professional athletes, so there's no way to determine whether there has been an increase for NFL players. And some of the criminal charges have already been dropped while guilt in other cases has yet to be determined. Nonetheless, some league officials are concerned that the repeated reports of player arrests could alienate fans and drive away sponsors of what has become by far the nation's most popular and prosperous sports attraction.
"I do not want the fans to turn us off because of off-field behavior," Upshaw said. "It has happened in other sports, and I would not want that to happen to the NFL."
The league endured a public relations disaster last year when four Minnesota Vikings were charged with misdemeanors for lewd conduct during a boat cruise on Lake Minnetonka. Dubbed the "Love Boat" incident, it made the team the butt of jokes nationwide.
Cincinnati has been this season's capital of dubious behavior. Eight Bengals players have been arrested since last December, including one player who has been arrested five times. After Bengals cornerback Deltha O'Neal was stopped at a traffic checkpoint early last Saturday and charged with driving while intoxicated, Coach Marvin Lewis, a former Washington Redskins assistant, condemned the conduct of his offending players.
"It's an embarrassment to our organization, to our city, and to our fans," he said during a news conference. "These things socially are not right. Hopefully this is a positive so our young people who are fans understand there are certain things in our society that are unacceptable. It doesn't matter what you do for a living or who you are, you've got to follow those rules and laws. I think we should feel good around here that our local law enforcement has taken steps to curtail and get people who drink and drive off the road."
Under its personal conduct policy, the league can fine or suspend players for criminal activity. Goodell extended a four-game suspension that Bengals linebacker Odell Thurman was serving for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy to cover the rest of the season after Thurman was arrested on a drunken driving charge in September. He also suspended Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry for two games in October, following a string of arrests, for violations of the personal conduct and substance abuse policies. Lewis had deactivated Henry for a game just before Goodell imposed the suspension.
During a series of visits to teams early in the season, Goodell met with the Bengals players and told them to improve their off-field behavior. Some within the league say such warnings and punishments prove that NFL officials emphasize the issue sufficiently and it's up to the teams and players to handle matters better.
"We have development programs and training programs," Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said at an NFL owners' meeting last week in the Dallas area. "But, you see, the thing that's difficult is when a person goes from a position of being broke to being . . . affluent, all of a sudden their life changes. And you don't know how that person is going to change once they go through that process. Some of them handle it very well. Some of them have difficulty with it."
Aiello said the league office is exploring possible further steps with the individual franchises and the NFLPA.
After the Love Boat incident, new Vikings owner Zygi Wilf issued a 77-page code of conduct for all team employees late last year and Coach Mike Tice, considered by some as being too lenient with players, was fired. But the misbehavior by Vikings continued. Wide receiver Koren Robinson was released during training camp after being arrested on charges of drunken driving and fleeing from police, and safety Dwight Smith and a woman were cited by Minneapolis police for indecent conduct in a stairwell outside a downtown nightclub.
Players say that they are often the target of publicity seekers and that their offenses generate much more attention than they should.
"If you're an NFL player and you go out in public or you go out on the town, you're a target," Vikings tight end Jermaine Wiggins said this summer. "People know who you are. People know what you make. I mean, that's right in the papers. Women come up to you. Guys want to challenge you to show how tough they are. If you're going to be out there, you have to learn how to walk away from situations. Too many young players haven't learned how to do that."
Almost all NFL teams do background checks on players before they enter the league, but Kansas City Chiefs President Carl Peterson said it can be difficult to predict which players will outgrow youthful mistakes.
"The players come to us from college sometimes with previous problems or a tendency toward problems," Peterson said. "You try to make good decisions on players and their off-the-field habits or problems. All of us, I think, want to try to give anyone a second chance if we feel they're deserving. I think all of us also know that if it is a continuing pattern or whatever, you only get so many chances in the NFL. You've got to move on. If you get to the point where . . . it's a habitual thing or a repetitive thing, then you have to make a decision and say, 'Is this really worth it?' "
The latest development with the Chargers is also one of the oddest. DEA officials learned that Chargers players were sending large sums of money to China and believed they had a steroid-smuggling case on their hands, according to sources who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Instead, they came to believe the money was for knockoff athletic shoes that could be passed off and sold as name-brand merchandise in this country, the sources said. The case has been turned over to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which has jurisdiction over such investigations.
In September, the Chargers' Kiel was arrested for shipping codeine-based cough syrup to Texas. Authorities said that such cough syrup sometimes is used to enhance other drugs. Kiel has pleaded not guilty. His arrest came weeks after Foley was shot several times in the leg and hand by an off-duty Coronado, Calif., police officer.
The officer, Aaron Mansker, reportedly spotted Foley's car weaving while traveling as fast as 90 mph around 3 a.m. on a Sunday. Mansker, who was not in uniform or driving a police vehicle, suspected that Foley was driving drunk and followed him. Foley reportedly refused to pull over, and both vehicles ended up in a cul-de-sac near Foley's home. Mansker reportedly said that Foley got out of the car and approached him on foot while a female companion took over as the driver and attempted to ram him with the car, and that he fired a warning shot before shooting Foley when he saw Foley reach for his waistband. Foley was unarmed.
Foley is sitting out the season after being placed on the reserve-non football injury list. Police said Foley had a blood alcohol content of .233 percent, nearly three times California's legal limit of .08 percent, and prosecutors charged him with two counts of driving under the influence. He has pleaded not guilty. His female companion, Lisa Maree Gaut, pleaded not guilty to drunken driving and assault charges. Her attorney has disputed Mansker's account and has said Mansker failed to properly identify himself as a police officer, leaving Foley and Gaut concerned that he might be a carjacker or a crazed fan.
"Absolutely it's a reflection of the players [and a] reflection on the organization," Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith said. "I take it personally. . . . Everybody's talking about what's basically a handful [of players]. But if you've got one or a handful, it's still a problem. It's embarrassing and you've got to deal with it."