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NFL Needs More Than a Dress Code to Help Image

October 23, 2005|Jim Litke | Associated Press

If the dress code laid down by NBA Commissioner David Stern succeeds in spiffing up his league's image, it won't be long before NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue follows suit.

Business-casual probably won't cut it, though. The way some people around Tagliabue's league have been acting recently, the first item on any list of approved clothing could be a straitjacket.

From his Park Avenue office in New York, pro football's czar is surveying a landscape that might not have looked this messy since the days when Ray Lewis beat a murder rap (and Rae Carruth didn't).

The incidents are unrelated and in various stages of investigation -- or, in one case, negotiation -- but the bad publicity touches every compass point on the league map:

From Lake Minnetonka in the north, where a Vikings' boat party veered into murky waters; to Lake Pontchartrain in the south, where Saint owner Tom Benson has been dropping hints about abandoning New Orleans for good.

And from Seattle in the West, where Seahawk Coach Mike Holmgren declared a neighborhood off-limits after one of his players was severely beaten there; to Charlotte, N.C., in the East, where one practice-squad player left the team after testing positive for steroids and a few others have been linked in reports to a doctor indicted for distributing performance-enhancing drugs.

Minnesota is the messiest of the four, and likely to be the longest-running. It began with a boat ride several weeks ago and the backwash continues to make headlines.

Staff members on the two rented cruise ships involved described the original party as lewd, inebriated and excessive enough to make even Tara Reid blush. The latest wrinkle was a story in this week's Sports Illustrated recounting how normally circumspect Viking owner Zygi Wilf blistered his team with a profanity-laced tirade and threatened to can anyone involved in planning the bacchanalia.

The remarkable thing, according to several players quoted anonymously by the magazine, is that it was an annual event.

Another former Viking told the magazine that it's been going on every year, "and every year it has escalated."

The people of Louisiana might say much the same about Benson's implied threats to take his franchise elsewhere. He was part of an ownership group that bought the team in 1986 promising to keep the Saints in town. Benson then bought out his partners and then arm-twisted the state to pay for new offices, an indoor practice field and numerous improvements to the Superdome over the past two decades.

And now that Louisiana, struggling to recover from devastating back-to-back hurricanes, has nothing left to bribe him with, Benson apparently is turning his attention to San Antonio, the team's "temporary" home. If he ever made the move permanent, it would make Art Modell's sleazy end-run from Cleveland to Baltimore look almost honorable.

"We want our Saints, we may not want the owner back," New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said earlier this week, shortly after learning Benson was discussing a move with San Antonio officials and had fired two top executives known to favor keeping the Saints in Louisiana.

"I'm ready to go to the NFL and to Tagliabue and say, 'Give us the Cleveland plan,' " the mayor added.

Showing his usual knack for public relations, however, Tagliabue will be coming to Nagin instead.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Thursday the commissioner would be attending the Saints "home" game next weekend in Baton Rouge, La., to look at a number of issues.

"The most immediate concern is where the Saints will play the 2006 season," Aiello said. "The commissioner will have conversations with Mr. Benson and others to get a look at the situation, identify alternatives and start planning for the future."

Asked whether that could be in San Antonio, Aiello said, "We have no idea if those reports are accurate. Mr. Benson hasn't said anything to us."

The latest words from Seattle, meanwhile, have been encouraging ones. Several teammates went to visit injured safety Ken Hamlin after he was moved out of intensive care and into a private room. Hamlin suffered a fractured skull and a blood clot near the left side of his brain in an assault outside a nightclub in Pioneer Square, the bar and restaurant district just north of Seattle's Qwest Field.

"He looked like he got in a fight with me," running back Shaun Alexander said, smiling. "I sat around and cracked every joke I could that I had, to make him laugh ... It was tough, but he's going to be good. He's strong. I was more emotional than he was. He's going to be fine."

At a meeting, Holmgren told his players to stay away from the restaurant district, something he'd never done before in 14 years as an NFL head coach.

"It's like dealing with your own kids in some respect," he said. "You want to trust them."

But that's not always the wisest course, as Panthers' practice-squad player Aden Durde found out.

He left the team Wednesday after being cited by the NFL for a steroid violation. Durde claimed the nandrolone detected in his system during a preseason drug test was the result of a -- stop me if you've heard this before -- supplement he bought.

The twist is that Durde, an Englishman assigned to the Panthers by one of the league's international programs, said he bought the supplement back home. Then he did the smart thing and returned to England, which, if nothing else, will keep him out of the commissioner's way for the foreseeable future.

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