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Current players must honor history

2/24/2007

INDIANAPOLIS -- On Friday, I had the privilege of attending the Fritz Pollard Alliance's annual meeting and awards reception. The Alliance gave Hall of Famer and former Browns great Bill Willis a "Game Ball Award" for helping re-integrate pro football in 1946. His remarks gave me perspective.

I want to focus on the word privilege. The Hyatt Regency ballroom would not be filled with African-American coaches, scouts and executives if not for Willis doing for his game what Jackie Robinson did for Major League Baseball a year later. I was honored to be in the presence of a pioneer and, at the same time, ashamed over players of my generation because of their unruly off-field behavior, disrespecting the struggle to get blacks on the same field in the first place. Clearly, too many of today's players still don't care or understand what a privilege it is for them to play football professionally.

The knuckleheads are so out of control the NFL's No. 1 priority this offseason is not steroids, concussions or increased marketing opportunities, but keeping players off the police blotter. These players should be forced to sit in a room for just an hour with Mr. Willis. Maybe that would set them straight.

Granted, some of these guys are just bad apples, but I can't help but think a history lesson would be an effective teaching tool, perhaps more than the threat of fine or suspension. It's obvious some of these deviants don't appreciate the game, or the money they're paid to play it, enough to be scared by the consequences of their actions. Talking to someone like Mr. Willis just might embarrass them more than the negative press that accompanies every step they take off the straight and narrow.

From 1933-1946, team owners kept black players out of their game. When Willis, Marion Motley, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode finally did get to play, they had to keep their eyes open for unreceptive white colleagues trying to knock them right back out of the game with cheap shots.

Willis recalled Friday how on road trips, white players stayed at hotels while black players crammed in the home of a welcoming black woman. The establishment back then needed no other excuse but the color of a man's skin to keep him out of the game. When men like Willis opened the door for black players, I seriously doubt they envisioned those who would follow 60 years later getting arrested and giving the league legitimate reasons to kick them out.

And, no, African-American players aren't the only ones running afoul of the law. But there's no denying that the majority of the league's perpetrators are black. It seems these players forget or ignore the fact that, while they may not have to be twice as good anymore to get an opportunity on the field, they still have to be twice as good off the field to not feed negative stereotypes. These players' responsibility to their peers and the game may mean sacrificing certain aspects of one's lifestyle that may otherwise be acceptable.

It's largely the fault of the media because "man bites dog" is always bigger news, but we don't talk or hear nearly as much about what a Derrick Brooks or Warrick Dunn is doing in the community. Fair or not, professional athletes, especially those who play this country's most popular sport, are held to a higher standard. Thus, their mistakes are magnified and have consequences beyond the player in question, or as the case may be, the player being questioned.

The question is: Do these guys even care about how their mugshots affect the big picture? Sadly, it doesn't appear that they do.

It's gotten so out of hand the NFL and its players are discussing progressive discipline for repeat offenders. That's a positive and necessary first step. I'd be willing to bet if players knew more about what it took to reach this level of progress in the game, they would be less likely to take their participation in it for granted.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.