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Rams Face Fallout but Defend Selection of Phillips

Pro football: Running back fights stigma of assault arrest but is embraced by team, if not entirely by the public.

April 21, 1996|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Georgia Frontiere, the NFL's only female owner, telephoned Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips, who will remain on probation until November for assaulting a woman, and warmly welcomed him to the Rams Saturday.

In St. Louis, meanwhile, it was business as usual with the crisis hot line for battered women accepting more than 35 calls.

"Very, very disappointing," said Barbara Bennett, executive director of the Women's Self Help Center in St. Louis. "If I were a battered woman, I don't think I'd go see the Rams play.

"It's a very surprising thing that a team owned by a woman would do this. Maybe Georgia Frontiere has never experienced violence in her life and may not understand the scope or severity of the violence that takes place. I would hope this man is getting help; batterers don't change behavior without intervention. I just hope he's getting quality help."

Phillips, most everyone's pick as the best athlete available in this year's NFL draft, dropped to the Rams, who had the sixth pick overall, because of concerns about his off-the-field behavior. The Rams, who had Phillips ranked No. 1 on their board, however, did not consult with Frontiere, and did not hesitate in selecting him.

"I leave it up to the coaches," Frontiere said at the draft in New York. "I think most football fans and most female football fans want whatever helps the team . . . if it helps our team, that's all I care about."

Frontiere indicated she was unconcerned about Phillips past history, which included suspension for fighting, an out-of-court settlement for confronting a student and damaging his vehicle and an assault charge for dragging a girlfriend down three flights of stairs.

"If I got involved in every little thing we do, we wouldn't have much of a team," she said. "We'd have a bunch of ladies playing for the team--not that that would be bad . . . The coaches talked [to Phillips] and said he was very happy and sounded like a very nice man."

The Rams struck it rich in the draft, swapping places with Chicago in the first round and dealing running back Jerome Bettis to Pittsburgh for additional choices, and parlaying it into four players in the first two rounds. It will be a draft with an asterisk, however, until Phillips completes his tour of duty.

"We'll roll that dice," said Steve Ortmayer, the Rams' general manager.

Phillips pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge and trespassing for breaking into a Nebraska teammate's apartment on Sept. 10, and attacking his girlfriend. Phillips must complete an anger control and domestic violence prevention class by October 1, and has been given permission by the court to do so in St. Louis. A violation of his probation will force him to serve 30 days in jail.

"Sure, it's a risk for a lot of reasons," said John Shaw, Ram president. "If this occurred again, it would be catastrophic for him and for this organization. Obviously this player doesn't drop to us if there isn't that issue.

"We spent a lot of time investigating it and thought basically it was an isolated incident."

Just in case, however, the Rams will include provisions in Phillips' contract--such as deferred bonus money--protecting the team in the event it was not an isolated incident.

Phillips' agent, Mitch Frankel, said his client wants to help people at the local boys club and has talked about starting a charitable foundation.

Bennett, however, is not ready to embrace Phillips as a role model quite yet.

"Tell [Frontiere] the women in St. Louis will be studying the Rams very closely should this young man have another problem with regards to a woman or a man," Bennett said. "The Rams have a golden opportunity to show they understand violence against women and hold accountable this young man, who has expressed a desire to change."

Phillips, who lived in a West Covina boys home after being removed from his Inglewood home at age 12 because of truancy and temperament problems, advanced to Nebraska after a successful Baldwin Park High career. Phillips, 20, who played in only six games including the Fiesta Bowl in his final season because of his off-the-field problems, finished his career averaging 6.2 yards a carry, while scoring 30 touchdowns in as many games.

"It feels great; I was really hoping the Rams would pick me," said Phillips, who expressed both surprise and disappointment at remaining on the board until the sixth pick. "I was hoping the Rams would trade up to get me.

"I think [the assault incident] hurt me a lot. I think I would have been the first pick in the draft if I had no problem. I think I was the best player in the draft."

Both Ram safety Toby Wright, Phillips' former teammate at Nebraska, and Ram Coach Rich Brooks said Phillips was remorseful for his past problems, but he expressed no such emotion in his conference call to St. Louis writers. Instead, he said, "It's not even a situation any more. I'm past that. I think everybody else should get past it.

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