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Pro Athletes in Trouble With the Law: Is it a Growing Trend?

Aired January 26, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET



RAY LEWIS, BALTIMORE RAVENS LINEBACKER: We going to win the Super Bowl, baby.



BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: They may be winners on the field, but are they winners off?

Tonight, as we head into Super Bowl weekend, pro athletes in trouble with the law. Why does it seem to be a growing trend? And is enough being done to stop it?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak.

PRESS: Good evening, Welcome to CROSSFIRE, and tonight's tailgate party. Getting ready for Sunday's Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Florida, between two East Coast power houses: The Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants.

By any measure, the Super Bowl is the greatest show on Earth. At least 130 million Americans will be watching. But there is a big cloud over the Super Bowl, the off-the-field behavior of many NFL players. By one account, 21 percent of players are in trouble with the law for offenses ranging from disorderly conduct to murder.

That's our debate tonight: Is professional football something to celebrate or are professional players a national disgrace?

Before we get to the debate, let's first check with CNN/SI's John Giannone, who's down in Tampa, Florida. John, thank you for joining us. Let me ask you, first of all, amid all the excitement down there, is there any concern about the publicity over all of these problems that players are having with the law?

JOHN GIANNONE, CNN/SI CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is definitely concern when it comes to these two teams down here, and it was made clear to them before they even came down to Florida by the NFL, by NFL security and by their respective executives in their teams, do not get into trouble. In fact, both teams, from what I understand, were given lists of places not to go. Adult establishments in the Tampa area, other bars that they should not be caught hanging out in. And so far since the teams got here, the Giants got here on Sunday, the Ravens got here on Monday, there haven't been any incidents.

But it is clear, the NFL, in light of some of the stories that have appeared in the paper in this last week, is very concerned that these players at this Super Bowl behave themselves as much as possible.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: John, Bob Novak here. The commissioner of the NFL, Paul Tagliabue, in his state of the NFL speech which he gives annually before the Super Bowl, was pretty defensive, saying, hey, we're not bad fellows. But did lay out anything in that speech that even hints at a get tough attitude by the NFL?

GIANNONE: Well, you know, Paul Tagliabue seems to think that the incidents that have occurred are isolated incidents. And I think he is definitely concerned. He said we are downright distressed when the actions of an individual harm another individual, and obviously he was talking about four stories in particular that appeared in the same newspaper on he same day.

Of course, Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker, who is one of the best players in the NFL, will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday. At last year's Super Bowl, he was arrested for a double murder that occurred the night of the Super Bowl. He was later exonerated, and then pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction.

Then there is Rae Carruth, the former Carolina Panthers wide receiver was this week was found guilty of conspiring to kill his pregnant girlfriend. Then there's Mark Chmura, the former tight end of the Green Bay Packers, who this week began his trial for the sexual assault of a 17-year-old teenager who happened to be his babysitter.

And finally, earlier this week Mark Ingram, a former wide receiver for the Giants who was a star in the Super Bowl the last time it was played here in Tampa, he was arrested for grand theft auto. So sure, these stories have gotten attention, but Paul Tagliabue pointed out some numbers. He said 4,000 players are investigated. He said 26 were actually investigated, only 11 were found to have been convicted of a crime and he said if America had those statistics, it would be a much better place.

PRESS: But John, just listening to you tick off the names of these players and their problems, you know, violent crime is going down in every city in the country, I believe, at least most of them. Yet it seems to be going up, and maybe only place in the country it's going up is among NFL players. I mean, can't one get the impression that maybe despite what Tagliabue says, the NFL is just looking the other way?

GIANNONE: Well, I think he is concerned about that perception, certainly, and I think that's why he levied a $250,000 fine on Ray Lewis after Lewis was exonerated of murder and after he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor obstruction.

He wanted to send a message that yes, the court system said that he was not directly involved in that crime, but he had something to do with its aftermath and its cover-up and that is a serious offense. So certainly, Paul Tagliabue with that fine wanted to send that message.

But he also, without coming out and saying it, would point out that it isn't just a football problem. I mean, we found out this week that Jason Kidd, a star guard for the Phoenix Suns, was arrested for allegedly beating up his wife. Darryl Strawberry, the former Yankees star, has been in drug and violence problems throughout professional career. Two hockey players from the Dallas Stars were arrested in this very town a few weeks ago for being in a topless bar at the wrong time.

So, there are problems that are occur in all sports and Tagliabue, of course, doesn't want to point that out, but he does realize that it's a problem that sweeps across not only America but the sporting world.

NOVAK: John, I understand that the NFL has put off limits the striptease joints, I guess because the double murder that Ray Lewis was involved in was outside a striptease joint. Is that really -- I don't know -- it's something -- these are all millionaires. They have agents, and lawyers, multiple homes, and you've got somebody saying you can't go in strip tease joint. Is that -- is there something not quite fits together here?

GIANNONE: Well, I think it's all about accountability and that's something Ravens coach Brian Billick has been preaching all week, be accountable for your actions. You know, and I think one incident that really sticks out that will always stick out from now on when Super Bowl week comes is the whole Eugene Robinson situation from two years ago.

Here was a guy who played for the Atlanta Falcons, a devout Christian, a man who would preach his faith openly and constantly throughout the seasons, and then what happens? The night before the Super Bowl he's arrests for soliciting a prostitute on the streets of Miami or Fort Lauderdale.

So, what happened the next day, the Falcons were clearly affected by that news. They went out and got destroyed in the game by the Denver Broncos. So, certainly an incident like that takes on greater meaning at this time of year. But to get inside an NFL player's head, a millionaire's head, any human being's head to try to find out why they would do something like that when really they shouldn't do it, you really can't predict what's inside their minds.

NOVAK: John Giannone, thanks for being with us. We really appreciate it -- Bill Press.

PRESS: Let's introduce our first guest, Jeff Benedict, who joins us from Boston. And Mr. Benedict is author of a book called "Pros & Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL," published in 1998. Mr. Benedict, good evening. I hope you heard most of John Giannone's comments there. You wrote your book in 1998. Some pretty strong stuff in there, some pretty strong charges, even a strong title, "The Criminals Who Play in the NFL." But I've got to ask you, I mean, if you take any slice of humanity, any cross-section of humanity, you'll find a certain percentage who get in trouble with the law. I mean, aren't you unfairly picking on the NFL here?

JEFF BENEDICT, AUTHOR, "PROS & CONS": I don't think so. I agree that in every cross-section of life you're going to find criminals, but not every cross section of life is held up as a hero. What distinguishes these guys from everybody else isn't the amount of the crimes or the severity of their crimes, it's the fact that they are looked at, for good or for bad, as heroes by a lot of youth in this country, particularly boys. And I think that's really the problem here.

PRESS: Well, yes, and we'll get to that pedestal problem in just a second. But you also are just as tough in your book on the NFL itself. Not just tough on the players, but tough on the NFL, basically, saying, you know, that as I said to John a little while ago, they tend to look the other way because they need these guys to win the games and to make all the money.

But let me play for you what Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner, said today when he was asked by a reporter about your statistic in your book, I believe, that 21 percent of the players get in trouble with the law.

Here is Mr. Tagliabue.


PAUL TAGLIABUE, NFL COMMISSIONER: We have had 26 investigations, not offenses, investigations and we've had 11 convictions out of 4,000 people that we're tracking. And most of those convictions, putting aside the Rae Carruth, were minor offenses. If the rest of society can do as well as we do in the NFL, America's crime problem will be well addressed.


PRESS: I mean, sounds like they're on top of it. What more do you want?

BENEDICT: Well, first of all, when we did our book we didn't go to NFL for our numbers. We went to the law enforcement agencies around the country. I think the police departments and the prosecutors offices and the court houses produce a more reliable statistic than what the NFL security provides. And second of all, I think it's a joke to compare the NFL and say that if the rest of society was like the NFL, we'd be better off.

The fact is the NFL is one of the only professional organizations I'm aware of that hires felons. People who know -- when you know -- your employer knows you've got a criminal record and puts them out there like that. Now, I'm not saying that there are a lot of guys who are in that category, but the fact is that there are some and some is too many when they have the kind of visibility and the kind of status that the NFL players have.

NOVAK: Our other guest is Darrell Russell, the All-Pro tackle for the Oakland Raiders who's down at the Super Bowl site in Tampa. Thanks for being with us, Mr. Russell. Mr. Russell, I want...


NOVAK: ... Mr. Russell, I want to read you that was something written by one of the really top sports writers in the country, Dan Lebatard of "The Miami Herald." On December 31st, he said, quote: "There are plenty of thugs in each huddle on Sunday, and you need a certain amount of thug in you to play a game this violent," end quote.

Do you think that is true, that to be a pro football player you have to be a little bit of a thug, and if you are a little bit of a thug, you might get in trouble with the law?

RUSSELL: Well, I think -- that's just a new word to add to the thesaurus if aggression was put in there. I think thug is another word of saying you need aggression. You need a certain level of aggression in order to play in this sport. I can't really use the word as thug, unless he's trying to, I guess, stereotype players.

NOVAK: Well, I want to -- would you say the aggression. Let's use the word aggression that is needed on football field makes NFL players more likely to get in trouble with the law?

RUSSELL: No, I don't think that using aggression is going to up your stakes as far as getting in trouble with the law. However, I think that aggression is something that is needed in order to be a successful football player. Now, as far as leaving the aggression on field, I think some people have better way dealing with it than others.

NOVAK: We were talking earlier about Ray Lewis, the star linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, and I want to have you listen to something that Mr. Lewis said this week in Tampa.


LEWIS: Yes, I got money. Yes, I'm black and yes, I'm blessed. But at the same time, let's find out the real truth. The real truth this is was never about those two kids that's dead in the street. This is about Ray Lewis.


NOVAK: I don't quite understand that, but what I do understand is that Mr. Lewis was -- lied to the -- left the scene of a murder -- left the scene of a murder, lied to the police, had a plea bargain where he pleaded guilty, and I'll tell you what, if bill press did all those things, CNN would not renew his contract. How can you do all those things in the NFL and still be a respected player? RUSSELL: You know, I think that -- in that situation what the situation was mainly concerned about was the fact that two people were dead, and everyone that wanted to know who did it. I think that when it came to Ray Lewis, that was the main thing. People wanted to know did he do it or did he not do it.

Now, if you want to get very specific, then I think you probably get into the things that you mentioned. However, I think that the key was that he did not do it and he was acquitted on that. And, with that in mind, he was given that opportunity, and another chance to play his profession at the National Football League.

PRESS: Mr. Benedict, I want to ask about Ray Lewis as well. He was charged with murder. Those charges were dropped. He pled guilty to obstruction of justice. He actually cooperated with authorities, testified against those other two guys. The NFL paid him -- fined him $250,000. He paid his fine.

I mean, we do have a system of justice in this country. You're either, you know, nabbed or you're not, convicted or you're not. He wasn't. And now he's back playing football. Why shouldn't he be? I mean, do you think he ought to be blackballed forever just because of that?

BENEDICT: I don't think he should be blackballed forever. I think you've got to put this in context. I think it would be a lot more appropriate and a lot more effective, however, to not fine these guys, but to suspend them. The NFL suspends players who use steroids and who gamble, but guys who commit crimes or who are involved in serious violence, don't get suspended.

A fine to a guy who makes millions of dollars doesn't really send much of a message. I think suspensions are much more appropriate, and that probably would have been in line for what happened here.

NOVAK: Mr. Lewis do you think that there is a problem with NFL players in that they are making millions of dollars at a very young age. My colleague Bill Press didn't become millionaire until he was well into his 40s, but you're making a million when you're 21, you're just not prepared to have those kind of -- to have that kind of money at that early age?

RUSSELL: Well, I mean, you have to look at every sport when you look that. I mean, baseball players are coming out of high school, basketball players are coming out of high school. Track runners are making money at an early age. Tennis players are making money at an early age.

However, I don't think anybody's prepared to deal with the amount of money that they're dealing with when they come across it. I mean, the key is this. It's not so much getting the money, it's the fact that you're being put out into the real world at an early age. When you go to school, school is telling you how to -- is giving you information that you want to acquire and keep so that when you approach different situations, there many different aspects you can come from when you make your decision. And then when you get to college, you take all this information that you acquired and you're going through simulation life. They're giving you certain goals that you need to attain and one way or another, you have attain them to get that grade to get a college degree.

Now, when you leave early to make a lot of money, that's basically going in life without having a practice run. You see what I'm saying? And I think that at a very young age getting abundance of money and not having that advantage of, you know, having survived a practice run, yes then you're going to be put in some very difficult situations and you're going to be put in some binds where you're going to have to make decisions that might not always be the right decision. And sometimes, that can cause a problem.

NOVAK: OK, thank you, Mr. Lewis. We're going to have to break. And when we come back we'll talk about some of the incredible hype down in Tampa before Super Bowl XXXV.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. The pre-Super Bowl hype this year a little different. Attention centered on Ravens' linebacker Ray Lewis. not because he was voted defensive player of the year -- he was -- but because of his involvement in a double murder following last year's big game.

But what about the Super Bowl hype with or without the murder angle? Can't we just play football? We're talking to Jeff Benedict, co-author of "Pros & Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL." He's in Boston. And to Darrell Russell, All-Pro defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders. He's at the Super Bowl site in Tampa -- Bill Press.

PRESS: Darrell Russell, I want to talk to you about a little bit of the Super Bowl hype. I mean, there is nothing like it in this country. It's just like America just stops dead in its tracks on Super Bowl Sunday. I mean "SPORTS TONIGHT" on CNN has been talking about the Super Bowl every night all this week. There is a special section in "The New York Times" today all about the Super Bowl.

One hundred and thirty million Americans are going to be watching on Sunday. You know, less than 30 million watched the inauguration of President Bush just a week ago. Even in California, they're advising people to get together in homes and watch it together, otherwise there could be a blackout so many TVs are going to be on.

Now, I have to ask you, the Raiders didn't make the Super Bowl, but wouldn't have you have to admit that all of this type about nothing but a football game is way, way, way overdone?

RUSSELL: Being in the sport, I'm going to say no. I mean, no. You're hyping way too much. The way I look at it is this, everybody has their own job. Everyone has their own work force. Everyone has their own world that they have to go to.

However, every weekend, every Sunday, every play-off game, every Sunday, they have a way to release. And I think the Super Bowl is a good reason for that, and especially a Super Bowl like this. Nowadays, the way salary cap has come into play, every team has a equal advantage and a equal opportunity to get to the Super Bowl. A lot of teams are a lot more even and basically, who has the stronger will. That's pretty much what it comes down to as far as who's going to get to this game and who's going to win the game, for that matter.

But I think that the hype, no. I think it's getting bigger because I think more people are interested because number one, you don't get watered down with football games. You see them once a week. There's only so many of them, and they just keep going. And then as it goes, you go into the play-offs. The teams start to fall off and, you know, the excitement grows. And then when it comes down to this game, everybody wants to know who's going to be on top.

PRESS: Well, let me ask you about the pressure you feel as a player, both on the field and off of the field, particularly, off the field. You know, we know we tend in this country to put professional athletes on a pedestal and one of your colleagues from the New York Giants who will be playing on Sunday, running back Tiki Barber, is quoted in "The New York Times" the other day as saying this, quote: "People think they don't have to be role models all the time. But we are role models, whether we like it or not. Kids are going to look up to you?"

Do you feel that way, that you have a special responsibility to watch your steps because kids see you as a role model?

RUSSELL: You know, as far as the role model thing is concerned, I think that some people are looked at as role models more than others. However, players that are within the time they are playing, I think they're going -- there is going to be some sort of a microscope on top of them.

As far as Tiki Barber is concerned, I think a lot of people, they look forward to something like that. I think when they approach the sport, that was something that they wanted to be, that was something they have always wanted to be this is something that they looked at as a perk, as far as playing football.

A lot of people when they are playing football, this is out for them. Out of their area, out of where they grow up. A lot of people, they look for football as that is a way for them to make money, that is a way for them to have a job. That is a way for them to be successful.


NOVAK: Mr. Benedict, one of the strangest sights I have seen on television in a long time, since the Monica Lewinsky scandal, in fact, was at Tampa during the preweek, the week before the Super Bowl hype, when they had Ray Lewis in like in the dock with just surrounded by all kinds of media members. We've got it on screen there. It was one of the most bizarre things in the world. Is something out of proportion here? BENEDICT: Absolutely, and I think it's out of proportion two ways. One is these athletes and sports in general get far too much attention and publicity in our society. They are weighted way too much. On the other hand, when athletes do something wrong like get involved with crime, they get a disproportionate amount of attention for it.

I mean, having that many reporters around one guy who was essentially acquitted of the charges against him, at least the primary ones, is out of whack. But that's the double-edged sword that comes with professional sports. They get a tremendous amount of attention when they do good and they get a tremendous amount of attention when they do bad.

PRESS: All right, gentlemen. I'm sorry to tell you that we're out of time and we have no overtime on CROSSFIRE. So, we've got to call it there. Jeff Benedict in Boston, thanks so much for joining us. Darrell Russell down in Tampa, thank you for joining us. Good luck to both of you.

Bob Novak and I, Coach Novak and I will be back with our closing comments about Super Bowl XXXV coming up.


NOVAK: Bill, you are one of the few -- I venture to say you are one of the few Americans who will not be watching the Super Bowl because you know even less about football than you do about politics. But I -- I want to tell you this, most Americans don't care about this crime and all this. They are interested in the game. So I'm going to ask this question: Do you think the great defensive team of the Baltimore Ravens will be enough to win the Super Bowl and stop the Giants?

PRESS: Well, put it this way, since my neighbors across the street are from Baltimore, I'm rooting for Baltimore. But Bob, it just shows that as usual, you have no idea what you're talking about. I am going to a Super Bowl party on Sunday. I'm going to watch the game. Larry Nake (ph) invited me over. I don't know whether I'll be in the game or the kitchen or in the -- watching the game or in the kitchen, but I'm going to be there and as far as these players go, Bob. You know, you take these young guys, you pay so much, pamper them...


NOVAK: How many downs do you get in football? Do you know?

PRESS: Well, I thought it was -- 10 at a time; right?

NOVAK: Ten at a time. That's what I thought.

PRESS: Is that right back?

NOVAK: I think you ought to stick to ballet. PRESS: Well, listen, I'll he happy to read a book instead of watching the game, but -- I still want to say about these players, Bob...


PRESS: You can't be surprised these players fall off the pedestal when we pay them that much. From the left, see you Sunday at the game and see you tonight on THE SPIN ROOM. I'm Bill Press.

NOVAK: They pay some talk show hosts too much, too. From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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