Commentary

Game of life important to NFL

Rookie symposium furthering league's ongoing initiative to enhance players' life skills

Originally Published: June 29, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

During the past few days alone, there has been enough negative news in the NFL to label this a pretty distressing offseason.

Rookie safety Chad Jones, the third-round draft choice of the New York Giants, was involved in an automobile accident that jeopardizes his initial season in the league and perhaps his football career. Detroit Lions team president Tom Lewand, one of the league's most respected administrators, was charged with drunken driving. A group of medical specialists suggested that late Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Henry had suffered brain damage before his death six months ago, renewing the debate about football-related traumatic head injuries.

A Los Angeles Times story detailed the travails of former All-Pro guard Conrad Dobler, once widely regarded as the NFL's dirtiest player, who has been diagnosed with depression and suicidal tendencies. Dobler has been told by doctors that he should have his right leg amputated to relieve pain. There was a shooting that took place outside a nightclub where Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick had celebrated his birthday. Pittsburgh four-year veteran Willie Colon, who's viewed as one of the best right tackles in the game, will miss the entire 2010 season because of a weightlifting accident in which he tore his right Achilles tendon.

But notwithstanding the recent spate of troublesome headlines and continuing uncertainty over the 2011 season, the positive news emanating from the league (some of it in partnership with the NFL Players Association) should not be summarily ignored.

The NFL convened its annual rookie symposium in Carlsbad, Calif., earlier this week. And although the four-day orientation session has become a staple of the NFL calendar since its inception in 1997, the program only continued an admirable offseason in which the league furthered an ambitious initiative on developing and enhancing players' life skills.

"We had two areas of emphasis," said Adolpho Birch, NFL vice president of labor policy and player development. "Transition into the league and transition out of the league … and both areas are important to us."

In terms of the latter, the NFL held its business management and entrepreneurial program at Harvard and Penn for a sixth year; the fourth annual Broadcast Boot Camp for current and former players interested in moving into the electronic media entities; and the first-ever transition program earlier this month at Georgia Tech for players to improve knowledge and understanding of the corporate sector.

Individual franchises such as the Atlanta Falcons -- which a few weeks ago played host to 30 players at a leadership and business summit at Emory University -- have adopted an expanded program for preparing veterans for their football afterlives.

But the rookie symposium, mandatory for all draft choices, has been the longest -- and arguably the most successful -- of the programs sponsored by the league, or joint ventures between the NFL and the union.

"There's a lot to take in," acknowledged Pittsburgh first-round offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey. "But it's definitely productive. You come into the league with big eyes, no matter what round you're drafted in, you know? But [the symposium] really opens your eyes to a lot of stuff you haven't thought about. Or things that you just kind of took for granted."

Fine-tuned over the years, the program includes sessions on developing life skills, personal finances, football operations, substance abuse, career planning, available internships, choosing and monitoring an agent and the resources that the league and NFLPA make available.

Current and former players address the rookies, and there are panel discussions, skits, role-playing exercises, videos, breakout discussion groups and question-and-answer sessions. All of it is designed to facilitate a player's conversion from college to the pro game and to educate the players on situations and events they might encounter.

About 25 to 30 current and former players participate in terms of addressing the rookies on a variety of topics or serving on panels. Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith met with the group Sunday night. Among the many veterans involved were Cris Carter and Tedy Bruschi of ESPN. The league strives to have a representative cross-sample of younger players involved.

This year's roster, for instance, included St. Louis linebacker James Laurinaitis and Carolina defensive end Everette Brown.

Although both players were second-round choices in 2009, they experienced disparate first seasons in the league. Laurinaitis started all 16 games, had 120 tackles and was an All-Rookie selection. Brown registered just one start and had only 20 tackles.

Said Minnesota quarterback/wide receiver Joe Webb, a sixth-round pick: "It goes from things as simple as how to rent an apartment to as [complex] as how you handle your money. There's a lot of commonsense stuff. But there are also things that make you say to yourself, 'Man, I never thought of that.' It's very thorough and, while it can be [tiring], it's worth your attention."

Although the programs for transitioning away from the league typically deal with more mature players, the symposium is for rookies who are essentially gestational and who might be more susceptible to problems with handing their money or instant celebrity. Or, as Birch noted Monday, "time management, stress management and money management."

"I always think it's really good, and maybe more meaningful, to hear things from guys who have been in your shoes," said quarterback Tim Tebow, one of Denver's first-round selections. "It means a little bit more coming from those guys."

One of the newer areas emphasized this year, in keeping step with the times, is that of social-networking outlets, Birch said.

"If you're tweeting, 'Hey, I'm on vacation in the Bahamas,' then you're also basically tweeting that you're not at home," Birch said. "That can be important, and we point that out."

Only three rookies -- Jones, Indianapolis cornerback Kevin Thomas and Pittsburgh tackle Chris Scott -- are not in attendance this week, all because of injuries. Minnesota wide receiver Percy Harvin departed early last year because of illness. Beyond those excused absences, attendance has been perfect since 2004, when the late Washington safety Sean Taylor was fined $25,000 for an unexcused early exit.

The symposium makes the point -- and most players seem to get it -- that playing in the NFL is a responsibility and a privilege not to be taken for granted.

"At some point, all of these guys are going to be leaders," Birch said. "Leaders in their family. Leaders in their community. Leaders with their team. But being in the NFL doesn't define them. It doesn't make them the component. It just makes them a component."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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