Column: Arrests and trials, the real cost of the NFL's business

  • Article by: JIM LITKE , AP Sports Columnist
  • Updated: July 12, 2013 - 7:11 AM
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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune file

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In the past few months, more than two dozen NFL players and a sprinkling of front-office executives have been arrested for crimes ranging from petty to deadly.

No matter how bad it looks, remember that's not a crime wave by any fair measure, let alone by league standards. Think of it instead as just the cost of doing business. Everybody in the NFL already does.

To be fair, any company with that employs 9,000 people is bound to have some bad apples. And this year's number of arrests, give or take a few, lines up with last year's pace.

So no one should have been surprised to awake Thursday morning to news reports that Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in Lincoln, Neb. But because the NFL is all about image, about "protecting the shield," as commissioner Roger Goodell never tires of saying, Dennard's team pretended to be.

Another jersey trade-in offer may be in the works even as you read this.

"The New England Patriots are extremely disappointed to learn of Alfonzo Dennard's arrest," a team statement said. "We take this matter very seriously and are working to get more information on the incident."

Please. Let's not forget the bottom line is always personal responsibility, and that Dennard climbed into his car likely knowing that the entire league and his team in particular — former Pats tight end Aaron Hernandez is being held on a murder charge — was already feeling the heat.

And that he was on probation after punching a cop during a fight in the same town a week before the 2012 draft.

But let's not forget, either — because the Patriots certainly can't — that the reason they were able to pluck him all the way down at the seventh round of that draft is because Dennard had several previous scrapes on and off the field.

Once you stop to think about it, the cynicism that underpins the whole "crime-in-the-NFL" phenomenon is almost breathtaking.

A respected agent said earlier this week that just about every time he meets with one of the league's general managers or personnel chiefs, the guy knows exactly how many potential troublemakers are on his roster. There's even a code word for those players: "turds," as in "I can't risk a chance on another turd. We've already exceeded our quota."

There's upwards of 10 on just about every squad, the agent estimates. He said they tend to be clustered around a handful of defensive positions where meanness and a short memory are essential, with wide receivers being the most notable exception on the other side of the ball.

"They want guys who say 'gimme the damn ball," and guys who can turn around the play after they get beat and start talking trash right away about how it won't ever happen again," he said. "Without those nasty, selfish guys, competing on a regular basis is practically impossible."

According to the agent, who asked that his name be withheld because he's still negotiating deals, the number of headaches a team takes on can generally be calibrated by how desperate it is to win. Think of the Cincinnati Bengals a few years back, or on a smaller scale, how Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hired a bodyguard to make sure wide receiver Dez Bryant didn't find himself in any more compromising positions.

The problems in New England at the moment may spring from a different source — hubris, or as the agent put it, "too much faith in the 'Patriot Way.'" But in every case, teams know exactly what they're doing when they draft, trade or take a flyer on a knucklehead like Dennard. The only thing they can truly be "extremely disappointed" about is when one or another does something stupid or dangerous while they were his enablers.

There were at least 17 different teams touched by the more than two dozen arrests these past few months, and anytime a problem extends that wide, it usually runs top to bottom as well.

As noted above, this is first and foremost about personal responsibility. And to be fair, Goodell hasn't been shy about doling out harsh punishment to any employee, and even harsher punishments to the league's higher-ups. But what's clear is that his message, no matter how many times he warns rookies to "protect the shield," is still being greeted in too many corners of the league with little more than a wink and a nod.

So why not just spare us the lecture?

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