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Strong safety net from NFL security

1/26/2006

Murder raps, hookers, hooch, bar fights, strippers and blow: Must be Super Bowl season. And while Motown proper offers plenty in the way of all-of-the-above, the smart money says that much of this year's front-page mischief will occur across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, a laissez-faire Canadian fulcrum for greater Detroit's red-light industries.

Sounds like the Steelers and Seahawks could use an NFL-issue Big Brother next week to deliver the fun-loving player from those temptations. Sure enough, they'll be watching.

Players' jeopardizing their team's chances in the days or even hours leading up to the big game is as old as the tilt itself. Thinking he'd play nary a down behind starting wide receiver Boyd Dowler in the very first Super Bowl in 1967, Green Bay's Max McGee sneaked out after curfew and drank all night, barely making the Packers' morning-of team breakfast. Inevitably, Dowler got hurt on the second play after kickoff, thus forcing McGee to play the balance of the game. McGee rode his lingering buzz to seven catches for 138 yards on the way to Green Bay's 35-10 pummeling of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Nowadays, each NFL team is required to contract with a security specialist -- often an ex-FBI agent -- in an attempt to stymie McGee-like behavior before it begins. These hired guns look out for the players' physical well-being, perform background checks on personal associates, and head off potential off-the-field indiscretions by maintaining close ties with law-enforcement officials and other key sources. Among other clandestine duties, they also conduct numerous "diligence operations" to make sure their guys aren't fleeced by scam artists or identity thieves, and they regularly brief the team on people and places to avoid on road trips.

"We like experienced investigators and really are drawn to them," says NFL security director Milt Ahlerich, an ex-FBI agent himself. "They make ideal choices because they have the experience base, outstanding investigative skills and very, very good report-writing skills. They exercise good judgment in tight situations and are not blown away by the celebrities that they work around.

"We need to know a lot of people and law enforcement in the areas that they work, and they have the ability to get information discreetly and professionally and objectively that's helpful for us to help our clubs do a better job securing our events and looking after our owners and players and teams in general."

Two incidents this past October -- a Seattle nightclub brawl that left Seahawks safety Ken Hamlin hospitalized and the Minnesota Vikings' much-publicized "sex cruise" -- illustrate the need for such covert ops, at least from the teams' perspective. After Hamlin's scrap, the Seahawks banned their players from frequenting establishments in Pioneer Square, a rambunctious nightlife district near Qwest Field. And once it was learned that the Vikings' security contractor post was vacant at the time of the infamous shove from shore, the league moved swiftly to ensure that the team's new ownership hired Dag Sohlberg, an FBI veteran with a name fit for a Clancy novel, to conduct an internal investigation of the incident and then stay aboard on a permanent basis.

How far can they go? How deep do they dig? That isn't information the teams and the league are ready to impart, but it's probably safe to say that players have a more difficult time than ever these days keeping their lives away from the field a secret from their employers, at least those parts of their lives that might be deemed unsavory by the NFL.

"We've got the security people, and you know they have connections on the outside," says Atlanta Falcons cornerback Brandon Williams. "They know people who know people who know you, so it's not hard for them to find out what they really want to find out."

Just how they find out is shrouded in some mystery, although a veteran St. Louis private investigator who has worked on a handful of cases involving pro athletes over the past 20 years provides a peek behind the curtain.

"Let's say they get a death threat or some altercation within [a player's] family," says Joe Adams, an erstwhile CIA operative who has worked "probably 50 different cases" with the FBI in his career. "They have their own people who do damage control and secure the situation. They'll say, 'We don't talk to this outside of your family or the team -- and we don't talk to the press.' Then they'll ask the appropriate questions of the appropriate people. They've got their own internal private detective service."

Still, the weeklong run-up to Super Bowl Sunday consistently seems to find a way to reveal the limitations of such efforts.

The Bears' 1985 romp through the French Quarter notwithstanding (they were the '85 Bears, after all), recent acts of Super Bowl debauchery have proven less fortuitous than McGee's all-night booze bender. Bengals fullback Stanley Wilson's snorting his way through South Beach in 1989? Yikes. Falcons safety Eugene Robinson's flagging down an undercover Coconut Grove cop for copulation in '99? Viva Miami. And don't forget Hotlanta and San Diego, which served as the backdrops for Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' 2000 nightclub murder charge and bipolar Raiders center Barret Robbins' pregame disappearing act in 2003, respectively.

Toss in last week's alleged domestic violence transgression involving Seahawks offensive tackle Sean Locklear and Anthony Hargrove's Jan. 3 barroom brawl -- which landed the Rams defensive end in a St. Louis-area emergency room -- and there's plenty of folly fodder (Rae Carruth, Nate "The Herbivore" Newton, Darrell Russell, Lawrence Phillips, Michael Irvin, Todd Marinovich, Art Schlichter, et al) to justify the league's ramped-up watchdog tactics as a football-crazy nation turns its lonely eyes to Detroit.

But whether such vigilance is ethical is subject to debate among those well-versed in employment issues.

"My question would be to what degree the players are aware of this arrangement," wonders Michael Harris, a professor of human resource management at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "If a player is informed, I really think it's in the player's best interest."

"Employers have the right to conduct surveillance on employees as long as they don't cross over into an invasion of their privacy rights," says Gregg Lemley, an employment attorney with Bryan Cave LLC in St. Louis. "For instance, you definitely couldn't break into someone's house and set a camera up. And if they're pulling strings to get private records, they could very well be running afoul of the law."

The National Football League of the crewcut-and-air-raid-drill era that Max McGee played in bears little resemblance to the NFL of today. But the antecedents are there. To wit: Before the 1980 season, Hall of Fame offensive guard Joe DeLamielleure, who spent the bulk of his career running interference for O.J. Simpson in Buffalo, was shipped to the Cleveland Browns, which employed a retired New York City police officer to travel with the team. The lawman attaché provided DeLamielleure with his first clue that the league's Wild West days -- which reportedly featured unchecked boozing, drug use and gambling, among other endeavors -- were about to be put in the rearview mirror.

"There was a drug problem in the NFL, and he would travel with us to make sure shady characters didn't hang around us," says DeLamielleure of the ex-cop. "We played Oakland one time and got back to Cleveland around 4 in the morning. There were 10 or 15 drug dealers hanging around the airport. We were good targets, I guess."

The team also became privy to regular security briefings from FBI field agents, the contents of which often were utilized in a playfully disingenuous manner.

"There was a lot of betting and Mafioso, especially in Buffalo and Cleveland," recalls DeLamielleure. "In Cleveland, they told us to stay away from a place called the Blue Fox. As soon as they told us not to go there, the offensive line would have our team meal there. Then we had some league officials come into our locker room one time and say, 'Don't bet.' The moment they left, we started a World Series pool. There were very few guys who didn't bet on anything.

"When I look back at all this, it's kind of humorous," he concludes. "But I think they were trying to clean things up; I really do."

The league's effort to maintain an upstanding public image has intensified as salaries have skyrocketed and seductions have mushroomed. With many of their ranks attaining mega-celebrity status to match their astronomical wealth, pro athletes are perceived as potential targets, and not just by rogue packs of Cleveland coke slingers.

"Nowadays, pro athletes are so recognizable; their faces are plastered everywhere," says Kelly Davis, a Chicago police officer who moonlighted as a bodyguard for ex-NBA wild man Dennis Rodman when he played for the Bulls. "There are guys who are good people who are put in bad situations and just don't know how to handle those situations. Guys will start a fight with a basketball player because they know that if he connects with a punch, they're going to sue."

Unlike Davis, whose job required him to stay in the hotel room adjacent to Rodman's to better monitor things whenever the Worm invited a female companion to a viewing of the anatomical equivalent of his nickname, NFL security contractors are hesitant to elevate their role to the nocturnal snoop level. This is where teams hope that contractual provisions known as "conduct detrimental," "integrity of game" or "loyalty clauses" -- language which requires that an athlete forfeit bonus money if he puts an embarrassing chink in the team's image (or worse) -- will keep their players on the straight and narrow.

The standard loyalty clause in an NFL contract centers on the following statement: "Player recognizes the detriment to the League and professional football that would result from impairment of public confidence in the honest and orderly conduct of NFL games or the integrity and good character of NFL players."

The clause goes on to state that players can be fined, suspended or fired for gambling, narcotics or "any other form of conduct reasonably judged by the League Commissioner to be detrimental to the League or professional football."

Some teams don't stop at that status quo. Burnt by Stanley Wilson's aforementioned coke binge and the late-20th-century outspokenness of wide receiver Carl Pickens, the Cincinnati Bengals are widely believed to have devised the strictest loyalty clause in all of football. It reads, in part: "If Player makes any public comment to the media, including but not limited to the newspaper, magazines, television, radio or Internet that breaches Player's obligation of loyalty to Club and/or undermines the public's respect for the Club, Club coaches or Club management ... player shall forfeit and shall immediately return and refund to the Club that amount of the bonus herein provided as follows... "

"When you're dealing with a private employer, there is no First Amendment protection," says Lemley, the employment attorney. "That being said, I think that clause is extremely vague. And sometimes when a clause is that vague, a court will void it in its entirety. But there's nothing unlawful or improper about including such a clause."

These clauses might be lawful and proper, but St. Louis-based agent Joe Hipskind isn't so sure they're necessary or noble.

"Why do we need these loyalty clauses in the first place?" Hipskind says. "Last time I checked, Tony Dungy has so much respect from his players that he doesn't need protection from a loyalty clause. I say that knowing there are some exceptions -- Terrell Owens, for example. But what these clauses do is show the players that they're not to be trusted. It's an overly defensive gesture on the part of the teams. It builds walls between team management and players when you try to enforce these things, and that's why I don't like them."

Richard Berthelsen, general counsel for the National Football League Players Association, doesn't like them either. In 2001, the NFLPA tried unsuccessfully to have loyalty clauses stricken from contracts. Undaunted, the NFLPA is using its disdain for such clauses as a negotiation chit in its current efforts to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement with the league.

"That's on our list of demands: that clubs not be allowed to circumvent maximum disciplining conditions of the CBA through contract clauses tied to bonus money," says Berthelsen. "But once they're in the contracts, it's very difficult to overcome. I've personally preached to the agents that their job is to do more than get a lot of money -- that their job is also to protect the player. But agents have not been willing or able to resist these club demands.

"The club reps say they have to be protected when they're giving out these huge signing bonuses," Bertelson adds. "My answer is: 'Well, don't pay the signing bonuses' ... knowing full well that they probably will."

Of course, the primary reason franchises dole out such cheddar-laden incentives is so a marquee player feels extra-motivated to carry his squad all the way to the Super Bowl. Still, at this year's big game in Detroit, it's a stretch to think players can easily resist crossing the bridge to Windsor, Ontario -- and to think the NFL's all-star watchdogs won't have an eye peeled.

"You'd be a fool not to think they'll do some countersurveillance on somebody," says private eye Joe Adams. "They might not jam anybody up, but I think they're out there doing some pre-emptive measures to keep their guys out of trouble. They're doing the team a favor."

Mike Seely is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis. He can be contacted at mike.seely@riverfronttimes.com.