On the eve of the NFL draft, Commissioner Roger Goodell promised to whack any team leaking confidential information about potential picks. That's not a bad idea for a league beset by enough legal trouble from current players that the face it presents to the public all too often is a mug shot.
Goodell, to his credit, has wasted little time since taking office trying to polish the NFL's image. He responded to the problem he inherited -- some four dozen players being arrested in a calendar year -- by toughening up the personal-conduct policy and threatening to hold the teams responsible for players' transgressions.
Now he's telling teams not just to keep reports of draftees' bad behavior to themselves but to use that information to keep the troublemakers from finding employment in the first place.
"The definition of questionable character is always going to be different for NFL executives than it is for the average Joe," said Memphis, Tenn.-based agent Brian Parker, whose firm specializes in solid characters.
"They've got every bit of background information on these guys that's possible to gather, from the classroom to the weight room. And they've gotten better at how they apply that information. But every team has their own method of placing value on a prospect."
That is a diplomatic way of saying that while teams spend upward of $1 million each to have kinesiologists, psychologists, sociologists and even psychics measure, poke and probe the available talent, they always take the player they think will help them the most, no matter how many red tabs peek out from a prospect's folder.
Or, as San Diego General Manager A.J. Smith put it a while back, "Ultimately, every club has to decide how short of the ideal they're willing to accept to fill a need."
We've heard countless times that drafting players is an inexact science, but that's an insult to science. What the NFL's annual auction reminds us is that it's not about how much information you gather, but what you do with it that counts.
Two years ago, for example, Louisville running back Eric Shelton interviewed with a few clubs and couldn't figure out why each one kept harping on character. It wasn't until a visit to Carolina that he learned nearly 20 teams had received background checks on him containing reports of a criminal past. The real story? The company hired to prepare the checks confused him with another Eric Shelton.
Then there was the intelligence test devised by the New York Giants to supplement the standard Wonderlic exam given to every potential draftee. Their version totaled 380 questions in all -- about eight times as many as the Wonderlic -- with the intention of wearing down players to the point where the club got real answers instead of the ones players were programmed by agents and media consultants to give.
What impressed the players was not the test's difficulty, but its preoccupation with suicide.
"They asked that a lot of times in a lot of different forms," Panthers receiver Steve Smith recalled. "You know, like, 'Have you ever thought the world would be better off without you?' "
Now, Goodell's asking whether the NFL would be better off without certain players. In that regard, there will be plenty of test cases. According to Pro Football Weekly, nine among its top 100 players have at least one of those red tabs in their folders.
Then throw in the rumor-mongering that Goodell hoped to short-circuit with his latest "don't-tell" edict.
"We certainly welcome that," agent Ralph Cindrich said. "So many times, we find ourselves trying to fend off rumors about guys that absolutely aren't true, and better still, we usually end up tracing them back to the clubs that are the most interested in drafting them."
For all the emphasis on character this year, don't expect things to change. Players fall into the draft's damaged-goods bin every season for sins real and imagined, then tumble down the board at great personal expense. A few guys might fall further than usual, given the current climate.
But as long as too many GMs and coaches think they're running a grown-up version of "Boys Town" -- that once they get the kid into camp, they can reform him -- even the worst characters won't have much trouble landing a first job.