Flawed: The NFL’s Investigation of Character

Magnifying Glass

Working from a place of paranoia and basing judgments on gossip should not be the operating standard. Thoughts from those inside the league.

A man walks into a bar.

It’s the beginning of most of your grandfather’s jokes. Let’s update it: A man walks into a bar.

He is an NFL employee.

He walks into the bar and asks the bartender and staff about the college star who, according to his teammates, likes to frequent this establishment.

The bartender says he hears that the guy makes the rounds at all the clubs in this college town. He adds that the star and his entourage look “thuggish.”

“You know, baggy jeans, untucked t-shirt, baseball caps or stocking caps, and those big boots,” he says.

Two of the waitresses on staff pipe up.

“He never orders anything but bottled water and he’s a lousy tipper. You’d think with all that money that the school must have paid him to play here that he’d tip better,” says the first, who has been working there five nights a week for he past 18 months.

The second waitress works at two other clubs since she moved to town. She remembers them well.

“I’ve seen them at a few other clubs in town. They like to go to a few clubs after stopping by here and I’ve seen the same thing. It’s all about the dancing and picking up women–not like that would be a problem for him if he wasn’t a football star. They’re quiet. They stick together. Never been a problem as far as I’ve seen.”

Here’s the punchline: The NFL employee returns to his hotel room and files his report, noting that the player–who likes to go dancing at multiple clubs in town, but only drinks water and has never been arrested (much less involved in a disturbance of any kind)–as a “character issue” and his team may now remove him from their board come draft day.  

This may seem like a ridiculous story, but the real joke is on the NFL, because according to those I have spoken with in the league–and my sources will remain anonymous to protect their hard-earned, hard-to-keep jobs in the league–this story is indicative of a prevalent approach among teams. The problem is that all too often, teams do not discern between a player’s reputation and his actual character.

“Character concerns should only be things identified by team sources first-hand,” says one league employee who has years of experience as an NFL scout as well as expertise in developing scouting tools.”I’m talking about things that if there aren’t court records with sworn testimony, then coaches, teammates, graduate assistants, academic counselors, tutors, and trainers have witnessed first-hand. Reputation concerns are second-hand information that’s further removed from an actual source: restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and students.”

And the most overrated source of intel…bartenders.

“The story about the teams giving the same weight to kid robbing a convenience store and a bartender telling a scout that a kid and his friends are dressed like thugs when they come to his club is sadly how some teams treat two very different situations.”

Another employee who has been privy to investigative processes for multiple teams around the league says it has been mind-boggling to watch teams use a sledgehammer to this aspect of player evaluation when a wrench is easier, more efficient, and has a bigger return on investment.

“I gave up trying to convince teams guys to stop leaning so heavily on hearsay a long time ago. It’s especially frustrating how lax teams are with checking sources and validating hearsay when attempting to assess the risk of an NFL prospect, ” says a veteran of team personnel matters. “We’ve had good suggestions from qualified people to at least classify issues of reputation with a much lighter weight than how they classify confirmed issues of character, but we continue to do the same old thing far too often. Sometimes it gets cleared up when we interview a guy and other times we just never take it any further.

He refers to Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence as a telling case study for this year’s draft class. The former Ohio State defensive end earned a ban from the Big Ten for failing multiple drug tests due to usage of Ecstasy and lying about it.

“Spence got rehab and while our team doesn’t regard him as a lights-out top-5 option, he is an excellent athlete and an effective speed rusher who offers a lot of value. He’ll be a good bench test for the current climate, because the strategy of ‘total avoidance’ isn’t realistic.”

And he says it doesn’t eliminate personnel problems from arising down the line.

“These are young men who are still maturing and they are dealing with fast money, fame, and intense scrutiny. Any one of these things alone can have a significantly disruptive change to their lives.”

Most college age adults discover that when they leave for campus, the military, or a full-time work environment, they grow apart from childhood friends. Regardless of how it occurs–suddenly or more gradually–it’s often an uncomfortable event. While some friends can maintain that strong bond through these changes, for some relationships the growing pains of moving in different directions while trying to be loyal to a friendship is too much.

The veteran personnel man says making a clean break is often unrealistic.

“Take that common dynamic of human beings transitioning from childhood to adulthood, add the intense public and private scrutiny that comes with playing at a major college or a professional program, and the expectation of a prospect making a sharp change from his childhood or hometown roots to a corporate-professional environment–especially one that has a here-today, gone-tomorrow employee churn thanks a continual influx of elite competition for job spots with high injury rates–and it’s ridiculous to take guys off the board due to ‘guilt by association’ with hometown friends and associates who have unsavory backgrounds.”

He identifies journeyman running back Marion Grice as a positive example of a player that most teams got right.

“Grice wasn’t a bad kid, but he came from extreme poverty, bouncing around homes of friends and family,” says Grice got in trouble for being a part of a group of guys driving around in a truck firing paintballs at people. “While uncool, it was prank-like behavior in my day and often still considered as such in posher suburbs where the cops take a lighter hand to the neighborhood kids. But this got Grice charged with misdemeanor assault and criminal mischief. Not many people talk about the fact that he took a job bagging groceries so he could get into college or what he did after that point.”

Apparently, some teams focused on the death of Grice’s friend Joshua Woods, a man the runner considered family. Woods had some legal problems as a teen, but he was on a good path before his untimely death.

According to Jeremy Fowler’s story on Grice, Woods, who was shot and killed by an assailant who followed Woods home from a Houston-area mall to steal the pair of shoes Woods bought that morning in December 2012, the man Grice considered his brother was working two jobs and living a clean life well before his untimely demise. But the NFL personnel vet says the circumstances didn’t matter for some squads.

More than one or two teams look at guys who grew up gang-riddled upbringings and say ‘take those guys off our board.’ Grice hasn’t had a meaningful impact for an NFL team at this point in his career, but he’s a good example of a situation where teams either get it right or get it wrong.”

The employee with experience in matters of player background says those that get it right understand how private investigations during the evaluation process should be managed.

“The head of security I worked with was great because he had a strong background in law enforcement that applied to what he was researching for us and he had a ton of connections. Most of all, he applied terrific common sense to the scouting reports presented to him,” he says, explaining that scouting reports citing character-reputation concerns are often not as easily digestible as one may think and the content is often inflammatory. “The issue isn’t with the information gathering process–as flawed and overreaching as that can be–it’s the editorializing that tends to go on among the staff.”

Good teams tend to run all potential character matters through their a head of security who has the task of hiring private investigators and filtering the information before sending the the results to the GM.

“The organizations that I have seen do this poorly, have the GM or Assistant GMs directly interacting with PIs and they attempt to parse this information themselves. The best GMs I’ve worked with knew how to give their scouts constructive feedback to scouts whose scouting reports overreach and editorialize in this area without attacking the guy who did the preliminary intel gathering.”

Upon hearing the idea of separating character and reputation, the experienced scout likes the concept.

“I see the value in that. It would be better if we confined character issues only to concerns that will either lead to legal issues or difficulties with being coached,” he says. “This part of the gig is a quagmire and the least enjoyable part of the job.”

It’s no wonder this scout and some personnel people in the NFL feel this way, no one likes being the subject of a punchline.

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