Lions rookies go to charm school   

Updated: December 2, 2008, 11:12 AM ET

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Charm School for Athletes

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions' rookies filed in one by one, dressed in sport coats, loafers, slacks and button-down shirts.

Char Goolsby eyed each of them closely, shaking their hands firmly, looking them squarely in the eye, testing them. Twenty years of experience told her who would listen and who would not. She raised an eyebrow when one rookie entered the room eating Funyuns and juggling an orange juice. She sucked in a disappointed breath when she discovered another rookie was wearing boat shoes.

"Hey, man, this is a business meeting," said Galen Duncan, the Lions' senior director of player development. "Go change your shoes."

Class, held three weeks ago at the Lions' practice facilities, had begun.

And Goolsby let them know the golden rule.

"There's a way you behave on Mack and Bewick that you don't behave on 14 Mile and Orchard Lake," Goolsby told the rookies.

Mack and Bewick is an intersection on Detroit's east side that's known for being exceptionally 'hood. Fourteen Mile and Orchard Lake, in suburban Detroit, is an enclave for white-collar professionals.

Not that there's anything wrong with Mack and Bewick, but when a pro athlete starts earning a 14 Mile paycheck, it's a different world.

That change can be overwhelming, even crippling. Far too many athletes have been unable to let go of their troubled roots or just have failed to fully understand their new lives and what's expected of them.

Goolsby gives players a playbook that aims to help them cope with bigger responsibilities and big business within professional athletics. She teaches them how to be complete professionals.

"People bring me their kids because they're good kids," Goolsby said, "but I can make them into a great kid."

Her Michigan-based company, the Academy of Protocol Intelligence, has tutored a variety of professional athletes and teams -- she declines to reveal most of their names -- on proper etiquette.

The NFL has several programs that help athletes with their personal development, but the intricacy of Goolsby's courses is one of a kind.

Once Goolsby and her team of experts are done, a pro athlete can break down a table setting like a Cover 2 scheme. He can write thank-you notes with the best of them.

As the Lions' rookies found out, nothing goes uncovered. Everything is dissected and discussed in detail. And Goolsby isn't afraid to make the athletes uncomfortable.

"Can I just talk straight to you right now?" Goolsby asked the Lions. "I don't have to be cutesy, right?"

The rookies straightened up in their seats and leaned forward. Maybe she finally had noticed fullback Jerome Felton was wearing athletic socks with his dress shoes.

"Let's talk about the n-word," she said. "How many of you use the n-word?"

Reluctantly, a few of them slowly raised their hands.

"When we use the n-word all the time, we end up using the n-word at the wrong time," Goolsby said. "The n-word is probably the one word you should take out of your vocabulary because you're going to slip up."

That was just the beginning. They also were lectured on staying out of strip clubs and drinking alcohol in public. Some of it didn't go over well.

"I understand we're business professionals," defensive end Cliff Avril said. "But we're also 22-23 years old. We don't have families, and we shouldn't have a nightlife?"

Goolsby countered with this hypothetical: "If Joe Blow slaps me on the butt at a nightclub, it's no big deal. If you do it, you've got to pay."

Goolsby's team of experts -- the friends and associates she retains for these courses -- were no less frank when it came to behavior and image.

Ray Hines, a clothier and image consultant who brought in a mannequin to show the players how a suit should fit, told the group, "A lot of guys wear jeans that hang off their behind. Gentleman, that's not acceptable."

Brand strategist Hajj Flemings told them how poor decisions can have lasting financial effects.

"Michael Vick made a $160 million decision," Flemings said. "If he could, do you think he would have made that same decision again? He'd be a fool." If the class had been held this week, Flemings could have undoubtedly referenced Plaxico Burress as well.

Marcus Foreman, a Chrysler executive who also discussed branding, left them with this axiom: "Life is what God gave you. Style is what you do with it."

And so on. Goolsby and chef Robert Hewitt put them through a dining exercise. They practiced table manners through a three-course meal. They learned the different forks, which wines go with which foods and that if they're having a bad experience at a restaurant, they should talk to the manager privately instead of causing a disturbance.

It was a lively session. Running back Kevin Smith was not pleased to learn it is not considered appropriate to ask for hot sauce at a five-star restaurant. Andre Fluellen learned he is never to tuck his napkin into his shirt. Goolsby confiscated Avril's cell phone because he was busted texting at the table.

"It was a good experience," offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus said. "Athletes are judged on who we are. It's a fast life from college to the pros. A lot of things, we didn't take time to understand what it's like to be at this level."

When the five hours were up, the rookies couldn't say they hadn't received a complete education. They practiced writing thank-you notes to Lions owner William Clay Ford. They practiced making proper introductions and shaking hands: Lock the V of your hand with the other person's. Wrap the hand and thumb. Squeeze. Pump. No chest bumping. No nicknames. Introduce yourself by first and last name.

"You can tell from the tenor of their appearance that they're still kids," Goolsby said. "This information is going to take them a long way."

You might be thinking the winless Lions should have been studying film instead of salad forks, coverages instead of personal stationary. But consider the bigger picture. Today's professional athlete is under a lot of pressure to perform because he's representing billion-dollar corporations 24 hours a day. Athletes who lack polish, poise and decorum have limited futures. Those who carry themselves with class and style can become icons, like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

Athletes are no different than many of us. Someone taught us how to craft a résumé, what to wear to a job interview and not to put our elbows on the table. Athletes also must be trained as professionals. Their livelihoods depend on it.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com


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