One NFL player shoots a handgun in the air outside a bar, another brandishes one in a dispute and a third is found with a 9mm pistol in his car. Two more are charged with spousal abuse.

And Minnesota running back Onterrio Smith is suspended for the 2005 season for his second violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. AFTER he is found to have a device to circumvent drug tests.

Perception: NFL players are out of control.

Reality? All those police blotter entries since the end of last season are the norm. Not only the norm for NFL players but, by percentage, the norm for the public as a whole, according to figures from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.

“Athletes are no more immune from committing crimes. They’re just higher profile than the public at large,” says Richard Lapchick, the institute’s director.

The NFL security department will not release its figures on arrests, although league spokesman Greg Aiello said they show no significant difference this year than in previous seasons. An unofficial count by The Associated Press puts it at 16, including Todd Marinovich, a first-round draft pick by the Raiders in 1991 who lasted just two years, in part due to ongoing drug problems.

That would seem in line with figures provided by Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who has been tracking arrests for a decade and says the offseason arrest figure is usually between 18 and 25 of the 2,900 players under contract during that period. That’s less than 1 percent.

Dungy has been riled by the recent arrests of two of his players, safety Michael Doss and cornerback Nick Harper.

Doss has pleaded no contest to firing a gun in the air outside a bar in Akron, Ohio, and was suspended Wednesday by the NFL for two games. Charges were still pending against Harper, who was arrested for hitting his wife.

But Dungy also has his own experience.

As an assistant coach with Kansas City 15 years ago, he was detained briefly after what he will say only was a traffic case. It was never publicized but it did come up in 1996 when he interviewed in Tampa for a head coaching job he eventually got.

But he noted that it demonstrates how easy it is for an athlete (or coach, in his case) to get into trouble and tarnish everyone.

“You have to look at it in the context of who we are,” he said this week. “It’s not an individual case. It gets lumped into NFL-Indianapolis Colts.’

“That’s what our players have to understand. We’re like a 2,000-person family. You have to accept the higher standard. If you do something that makes the newspapers – if you get arrested – it affects all the other people.”

These days, every time an athlete is arrested, word spreads almost instantaneously over the Internet, by cable news and talk radio – along with rumors of things that never happen. Never mind that later the player is sometimes exonerated: New Orleans’ Dwight Smith, one of the stars of Tampa Bay’s win in the 2003 Super Bowl, was arrested in March on a gun charge, but prosecutors decided this week not to press charges.

There are a number of factors that go into what sometimes seems like an explosion of violence in all sports, including the increased media attention.

Arrest figures kept by both the NFL and Lapchick’s institute reflect the obvious: that young males – both athletes and non athletes – are the largest at-risk group for drugs, alcohol and violence, all intertwined.

Dungy, who is black, notes that young black males driving expensive cars often draw more attention from police – and 70 percent of NFL players are black. But he quickly adds: “So do young white males in expensive cars.”

And Lapchick notes that times have changed. Guns and drugs are more prevalent and societal standards are different. Thirty years ago and more, domestic disputes were tolerated, if not condoned, and police who stopped athletes for drunken driving would as often take them home as to jail.

Not now.

So some coaches spend almost as much time counseling players on conduct as on Xs and Os.

“It’s simple,” Dungy says. “They have to know if they drive 20 miles an hour over the speed limit, they’re likely to be stopped.”

And if they’ve been drinking or have guns in the car, it will be worse.”

Thus it became a national joke last month when Smith, the Vikings’ leading rusher last season despite being suspended for four games, was stopped at an airport with a contraption called a “Whizzinator,” which is designed to beat drug tests. Shortly afterward, Smith was suspended for the season for another violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

This week, when the Baltimore Ravens began minicamp, it was duly noted that they were without two key players: running back Jamal Lewis, who is in an Atlanta halfway house after serving four months using a cell phone to set up a drug transaction and linebacker Terrell Suggs, on trial in Arizona on a 2003 assault charge.

Teams also are trying now to stay away from players with a history of trouble.

Smith was a fourth-round pick by Minnesota in 2003 although on ability he should have been taken much higher.

Channing Crowder, a linebacker from Florida, was considered a late first- or early second-round pick this year but slipped to the third, in part because he was arrested twice during his college career and suspended for a game in each of two seasons. That cost him considerable money.

So when he went to minicamp with the Miami Dolphins last week, Crowder said he had listened hard to coach Nick Saban’s speech about staying out of trouble.

“You’re in kind of a fish bowl,” he acknowledged. “Coach Saban tells us to act like someone is always watching you. Act like a grown man. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

AP-ES-06-15-05 1807EDT


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