The Aaron Hernandez saga has placed renewed focus on the decisions of teams to take chances on players with checkered pasts that could make for troubling futures. Already, there’s talk of barring academically ineligible players from the Scouting Combine.
But if the Hernandez situation results in the NFL truly hoping to slam the door on those who could end up in the slammer, there’s only one way to maximize cooperation from the 32 franchises. Teams having players who ultimately are found to be liable for crimes should lose one or more draft picks.
Absent that kind of potential consequence, some teams will continue to take chances on talented-but-troubled players, seizing on the talent and hoping that the trouble can be avoided, or at least controlled. After all, some players learn from their mistakes. Some players who did stupid things in high school and college mature into responsible adults. And every coach believes he’s the guy who can turn a misguided player around, regardless of who or how many have failed.
More importantly, every NFL coach wants to win. Many of them need to win sooner rather than later, or they won’t be coaching in the NFL much longer.
The NFL already imposes fines against teams with multiple players suspended during a given season, whether for violating the substance-abuse policy, the steroids policy, or the personal-conduct policy. But five-figure fines are like parking tickets for billion-dollar businesses trying to race to the top of their industry. The only way to truly strike fear into the hearts of coaching staffs and front offices is to draw a clear, bright line between the behavior of players on the team now and the ability to acquire more players in the future.
Teams regard draft picks as precious entities, for good reason. With four-year contracts for every round of the draft and a true rookie wage scale, teams can load up the roster with young, cheap players. When it comes to first-round talent that slides down the board due to red flags, the risk is low — and the potential reward is high.
The creation of a formula that would strip teams of picks based on player misconduct would go a long way toward increasing the risk. For now, some teams (like the Patriots, pre-Hernandez) will buy low, applying a one-strike approach to a player who is unable or unwilling to change. But if the team ends up losing a draft pick due to that one strike, there will be an even stronger reason to stay away from the player, or to do whatever can be done to keep him out of trouble.
That’s one area where there isn’t enough focus. Are teams doing enough to keep their players out of trouble? For all the time and money spent getting and keeping players healthy, it seems like more can be done to help players away from the field.
While the arrest rate for NFL players isn’t out of whack when compared to the arrest rate for the general population, the general population doesn’t have the benefit of working for a professional sports franchise with a strong incentive to help its employees make good decisions and avoid bad situations. The incentive obviously needs to be made even stronger, and the only way to do that is to find a way to link the failure of teams to keep players out of trouble to the ability to draft more players in the future.
Nothing else will work, because there always will be an owner, a G.M., or a coach who won’t be able to resist the upside. Make the downside more significant, and teams will start doing a much better job of avoiding troubled players — and of keeping all of their players out of trouble.