When Miami Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter punched Bengals offensive tackle Levi Jones in the face after the players exchanged trash talk at a blackjack table in Las Vegas, the NFL's off-the-field crisis went from the tragic to the absurd.
As quick as a roll of the dice, the league's reputation further degenerated into an image of wildly out-of-control millionaires who are accountable to no one. Nothing is off limits: DUIs, guns, fights, steroids, drugs, domestic violence, death.
"For everybody's benefit, if we are going to stay America's game, we have to do things right," Steelers owner Dan Rooney says.
The Porter-Jones heavyweight title fight earlier this month was just the latest in a series of disturbing incidents that have rocked the NFL since Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was shot to death as he sat in a limo on New Year's Eve on a Denver street, in a still unsolved crime. The altercation came just one month after Titans cornerback Pacman Jones was questioned by police after three people were shot at a Las Vegas strip club during the NBA's All-Star weekend, leaving a Long Island man paralyzed - the 10th time police have become involved with Jones in his two years in the NFL.
It came just three days after Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson was thrown in jail for 120 days for violating probation for a weapons violation by having an arsenal in his house.
And it came just as commissioner Roger Goodell was finalizing plans to slam the players with a stricter personal conduct policy in an attempt to prevent criminal behavior from dragging down his massive $6 billion-a-year industry.
"I like what he is doing," one GM says. "The commissioner is saying, 'You better stop and think before you drink, before you go to that club.' He's trying to plant the seed: 'Buyer beware.' He's saying, 'Hey guys, it's over, we're not tolerating this anymore. We're coming down real hard on you.' You really got to be stupid then to get in trouble."
Punishments may go as far as one-year suspensions requiring application for reinstatement. Penalties could be imposed even before the legal process is complete, especially for repeat offenders. The longest suspension handed out by Goodell last year for a personal conduct violation was four games. Jones could shatter the record when Goodell gets through with him.
More money, more problems
NFLPA president Troy Vincent acknowledges that the current policy of fining players, put into place in 2000, is not getting the message across: the money players make today is simply "so big, so enormous, it doesn't matter," Vincent says.
Taking away jobs for long stretches is a stronger and more effective deterrent, and Goodell will discuss with the owners this week at the league meetings in Phoenix his plans for stricter discipline guidelines and an enhanced educational program stipulating how players should handle themselves off the field.
Nothing is expected to be announced, but Goodell is making the changes with the full support of Gene Upshaw and the NFLPA.
According to reports, as many as 40-50 NFL players have been arrested since the beginning of 2006, a figure that would essentially make up the entire roster of one team.
The Bengals lead the NFL with nine. The number of DUIs is approaching the number of PATs; the official team photo has become the mug shot. But do the actions of 3 percent unfairly indict the other 97 percent?
"You would think that 48 out of the 53 guys on the rosters are thugs and menaces to society," Pete Kendall, the Jets player rep, said from the NFLPA meetings last week in Hawaii. "That is definitely not the case. There is certainly an abundance of negative press about our players. But our union is not talking about digging our feet in and being obstinate. There is recognition there is a problem."
Kendall points out that the proliferation of media and the advent of cell phones with cameras "make it harder for players to have a life out of the public eye," although that doesn't explain criminal behavior, and Porter and Jones can hardly use the excuse that they are targets of the public when they were fighting each other.
"Their luck ran out in Vegas," the GM said.
Porter, who just signed a $32 million contract with the Dolphins, $20 million of which is guaranteed, allegedly punched Levi Jones in the face after an argument spilled over from a blackjack table, a continuation of the bad blood that developed when they faced each other twice a year when Porter played for the Steelers.
Porter was charged with misdemeanor battery.
"Players are walking around with more money these days," Kendall says. "There are more opportunities to do things that lead you into trouble, to be around people who may lead you into trouble."
The fear in the NFL, of course, is that at some point, the public may get so fed up that there will be a backlash that could affect bank accounts.
"We get paid a lot of money," says Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, one of the 11 players picked by Vincent to take part in meetings last month with Goodell and league officials on the conduct issue. "To preserve that and to preserve the game for future generations, we have to keep our fan appreciation rate up."
Players helping players
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan replenished his supply of cornerbacks in the 2005 draft by taking Darrent Williams in the second round and Domonique Foxworth in the third.
Williams and Foxworth became best friends and did everything together - except go out on New Year's Eve a few hours after the Broncos lost to the 49ers in the final game of the season, keeping them out of the playoffs.
"I wasn't up for it that night," Foxworth says. "We lost earlier that day. I wasn't in the mood."
Williams went without him. "Honestly, that particular club, you have to be selective," Foxworth says. "You raise your level of danger depending on the places you go and how you behave at these places. That club is one of the places in Denver, it's not the worst place ever, but it's one of the places you think twice about going."
So why did Williams go?
"It's Denver," Foxworth says. "It's not like some lawless city. It's still safe in those places. You feel if you do the right thing, you will be safe. He did the right thing by having a driver. It was no fault of his. He did what he was supposed to do."
An argument had broken out at the club between those in Williams' white Hummer stretch limo and another group, but there was no indication that Williams was involved. But after leaving the club, Williams was murdered.
Foxworth's phone rang about 3 a.m.-4 a.m. with the news that Williams was dead. "I can't even put that feeling into words," he says. "Driving to the hospital, I didn't believe it. There was no reason to go down there. He was dead. But I definitely couldn't sleep, so I got in my car and went on down there."
He carries the memory of his friend with him. "I'm trying not to lose focus of his life," he says. "You try to keep it in the forefront to move forward and have more value in your life."
In the meeting with Goodell at the combine, Foxworth stressed the need for the NFL to continue education for players on life issues after its rookie symposium. He was so impressive at that meeting, the NFLPA invited him to its meetings last week in Hawaii.
"The majority of young players in the league are like me," he says.
When asked if players understand that playing in the NFL is a privilege, former Giant Harry Carson said, "They don't see it like that," adding that players must realize they are "easy targets" when they go out to clubs until four in the morning, wearing "bling and driving nice cars, you are setting yourself up to get carjacked and robbed."
Every Wednesday during the season, Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh says coach Marvin Lewis posts a list of players in all leagues who have gotten into trouble: after listing the Bengals, there might not be room for anybody else.
At first, Houshmandzadeh wondered why Vincent picked him to be one of the 11 players on the panel last month.
"You figure you were the leading team in arrests, so he was going to pick somebody from our team," he says. "After awhile it was like, 'Oh, somebody else.' It is what it is. You can't go back and change it."
When the Bengals are on the clock during the April 28-29 draft, the NFL must hope that their main priority is character, rather than the 40-yard dash.
All the Bengals arrests frustrate quarterback Carson Palmer, surely including that of wide receiver Chris Henry, a college teammate of Pacman Jones at West Virginia, who has been arrested four times in 16 months, suspended once by the NFL and could get hit with a second suspension.
"Enough is enough," he told reporters at the Super Bowl two months ago. "It's something we're definitely not proud of. From here on out, guys just need to make better decisions."
'It wasn't a mistake ...'
Floyd Reese, recently fired as the Titans' general manager, says the club did extensive research before making Pacman Jones the sixth overall pick in the 2005 draft. They visited him at West Virginia, and the coaches went to Atlanta to see him. "We spent a lot of time with Pac," he says.
He says the team used the same process and applied the same standards in selecting Jones as it did with Eddie George, Steve McNair, Jevon Kearse and Keith Bullock before him and Vince Young after him. "Those guys have been impeccable," Reese says.
While at West Virginia, Jones was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for a bar fight. The sentence was suspended and Jones was placed on two years probation. He has been nothing but trouble since the Titans picked him.
"It wasn't a mistake from a football standpoint. He is a great player," Reese says. "Has he suddenly gone downhill in off-the-field activities since we drafted him? I don't think there is any doubt."
Reese says he doesn't know why. "His background was tough, we all know that," Reese says. "But he's not the only guy who has had a real tough background. More times than not, you are able to mold those guys into the program. He has to get straightened out or he will be out of the league."
The Titans could wind up cutting Jones before Goodell hands down any punishment, a move that Reese says would have been impossible before this year because of the team's salary cap situation.
Jones has been arrested several times since he has been in the NFL, but has yet to be convicted. Goodell, however, could suspend him based solely on his failure to report two 2006 arrests to the Titans, a violation of the personal conduct policy.
"Immediately after the draft, he had one incident," Reese says. "The first time it happened, you go, 'Geez.' You bring him in and talk to him. He understands or makes you think he understands. Then, boom, there's another one. Then, boom, another one. You just go, 'This can't continue."