After several months of work, dozens of interviews and nearly 50 pages of notes, one of the final interviews I conducted for "Living Scared" -- the 10-page special report on NFL players and security in the current issue of ESPN The Magazine -- was with Milt Ahlerich, a former FBI agent and the NFL's vice president of security since 1996. It was late October, and a worn-out Ahlerich had just gotten to his desk after flying back from the New Orleans Saints' win over San Diego in London's Wembley Stadium. With such a sensitive topic -- how the idea of security and safety has changed in the NFL in the year since Sean Taylor's death -- I was prepared for Ahlerich to be guarded. Yet while few people are talking about it publicly, it's clear that the idea of player safety and security is on everyone's minds these days in the NFL. Ahlerich was no exception, giving an open and wide-ranging interview on, among other things, gun ownership and the league's very pro-active stance on security education for its players.
And in light of the recent headlines surrounding Plaxico Burress -- as well as Giants receiver Steve Smith, who was robbed at gunpoint Nov. 25 at his home in New Jersey -- Ahlerich's words and insights from that day seem even more prophetic.
Two of our players, two young players, Darrent Williams and Sean Taylor, were killed in the last 20 months, both of whom were young, talented and very well-respected, and players relate very well to that. It becomes very real when guys you know, your same age, your same environment, are dead.
There's a very, very stark reality to that.
You would never get a player to say this, but on some level, they are fearful. Can they say that? Absolutely not. They just couldn't. But they are. They are.
The idea of carrying guns, though, is something we strongly, strongly urge against, and the idea of paid bodyguards we think is foolish. The one time it might help you, the 25 times it will hurt you, is what the statistics will say. It's foolish and folly to have guns around you, on yourself, or with your folks who are looking after you.
That said, it's probably one of our biggest battles, and not just with our players; young people have an attraction for guns. They do.
Every week, one lucky reader gets to exchange e-mails with David Fleming.This week, a few questions from readers about Plaxico Burress and the general state of security in the NFL.
In the last year we've become particularly aggressive on hardening the home. We do home surveys and make recommendations for hardening the home, securing the home. Locks. Alarms. It's just everyday things that can be done to keep the home safe. This year we produced an in-depth video, about 10-12 minutes with a former NYC police officer who talks about making your home more safe. We showed that to all the players and coaches last year, and we may do it again. But there is a fluid nature to the league: There are 2000 players in the league each year, and after a season or two that guy you just talked to about security might be gone.
So we also talk to the players in training camp. There is a security professional associated with every team who is there to offer security expertise, as well. The key word is "offer," because you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. A lot of times they do drink, but unfortunately sometimes they don't, and that's frustrating as well.
I have been very saddened by the loss of our players. I know the guys down on the front lines with the teams take a sense of responsibility for that; they think if we could just have said something different to this young man or just done a little better with this guy we could have been able to avoid this.
We take this very seriously. We'll never be perfect, but we're passionate about getting there.
We tell players you don't have to be fearful, but you have to think. Before you buy a gun: think. We tell players all the time, you are entitled to go out and have a good time. Just have a plan. How are you getting there? Who will you be with? How am I getting home? A lot of players do listen to that.
You can't expect a young man, who is so successful at a young age, is just going to lock himself behind closed doors and not have a social life. You can't. It's just not realistic. They are allowed to have some fun, for goodness' sakes, and to have a social life. And in doing so it may attract some not-so-positive characters around them from time to time.
|David Fleming will be signing copies of his book "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship" at the Fairlane Mall in Pottsville, PA, from 4-7 p.m. on Friday, December 5th.|
I do this all the time with my friends: How many players were arrested in the National Football League last year? It's a multiple-choice question: 300, 90 or 35? And they always say 300. Why is that? The perception is, so many players are criminals and bad guys. The reality is, it's around 35-40 on an annual basis. Much lower than if you just picked 20- to 30-year-olds off the street and just looked at a percentage of 2,200 people broadly. On the average we'd be much below that, but the public perception is we have so many players with so many problems.
We do have players with problems, and I'm not trying to minimize that in any way, shape or form. That said, the vast majority are just playing football and enjoying the good fortune of their God-given gifts, to do the best for the NFL, themselves, their families and their teams. But the expectations for NFL players are high. These are our champions, right? These are our best. And they are paid a lot of money. People say why can't they just behave, there shouldn't be anybody in trouble. And I understand that perspective that the public would have.
Here's something that makes a lot of sense and is good advice for our players: Lower your profile just a bit. You don't have to not be a star, but don't be doing things that suggest you are arrogant or suggest that you're so wealthy that you are a lot better than other people.
Lower your profile a few notches. I think that's damn good advice, I really do.
Because that would be a sad day if our players were not part of their communities and active participants in the community. We've had for years a Take a Player to School program, and it's so cool; players get as much out of it as the kids. So we cannot succumb to that. But I don't see any evidence that guys are just going to wall themselves off behind compounds and not be a part of the community.
That's not where the NFL is, and that's not where our players are.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship," which has been optioned as a movie. The Flem File will run each Wednesday during the NFL season.