March 12, 2011 did not just mark the first day of the ongoing NFL lockout. It also, depending on who one listened to, marked the beginning of potentially dangerous times.
"The lockout means that players who may require ongoing attention from their teams in order to keep them out of trouble won't have that support. Which means that those players could be more likely to get into trouble," wrote Pro Football Talk editor Mike Florio in late March, following the arrest of Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib.
He added later: "At the risk of crossing into the melodramatic, this lockout needs to end before a player with real needs for counseling and/or oversight and/or a direct line of communication to his head coach gets into real trouble, or even worse gets killed."
Below Florio's column, the highest rated comments were those referring to the NFL as the "National Felon League" and the players as "common criminals." The prevalence of this mindset is part of what led Roger Goodell, upon taking office as NFL Commissioner in 2007, to impose a new personal conduct policy. "People in America can't relate to overindulged athletes not acting responsibly," explained New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, now a key participant in negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, in praise of Goodell's policy.
So with the lockout several months old and with negotiations on a new CBA finally on track, how have the players used their free time? Did the lockout see a mass of player arrests? Have players seized control of the government and destroyed nuclear reactors?
Actually, it turns out that one of the most common activities for locked out NFL players -- along with working out and other preparations for an eventual season -- has not been committing crimes (sorry, PFT commenters) but completing their college degrees.
Anticipating the lockout, many players returned to school for the spring semester. Minnesota Vikings middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who left the University of South Carolina one credit short of his degree, was one of the first to take advantage of the forced vacation. "I wanted to take advantage of the extra time that I had," Brinkley told Minnesota's Star Tribune. "It was always something that I felt like was hanging over my head and I wanted to get it done. The lockout gave me the opportunity."
Carolina Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen -- who, with Cam Newton now in the Panthers fold, may need that degree now more than ever -- graduated from Note Dame with the Class of 2011. Veterans have also taken advantage of the opportunity offered by the lockout. New England Patriots defensive end Ty Warren and future Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu are two accomplished players who have used the lockout to complete their college educations, from Texas A&M and USC respectively.
Academics have not provided the only worthwhile projects for players who suddenly found themselves with an excess of free time. Tennessee Titans safety Myron Rolle -- who, as a Rhodes Scholar, can already boast degrees from Florida State and Oxford -- has traveled to the Congo with Bill Clinton. He has also spoken at colleges such as Notre Dame, Georgia and South Carolina and hosted an annual camp for foster children in Florida. In late May, New York Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards made good on a promise to provide college tuition for a group of 100 students in Cleveland, Ohio.
To be sure, other players have surely devoted their free time to less productive endeavors. Talib, who has a trial date set for 2012, is a prominent reminder of that fact. But it is a mistake to allow a few malcontents to gain headlines and color perceptions. For a population that lives under a microscope, NFL players have risen to and exceeded expectations more often than not. Given the prevalence of player-organized team workouts and players going back to school, it seems safe to say that smart, well-intentioned players are the rule, not the exception.
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