NEXT WEEK, in the Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden in
Manhattan, the NFL will hold its annual coming-out party, the
league draft, a two-day ceremony in which 254 college players
join the profession of their dreams. The news at the draft comes
in fast waves, and everywhere you look, somebody has a phone
stuck to his ear. A player might be talking with his mother, an
agent with his still-undrafted client, a reporter with his
editor. And a general manager might be talking with a former FBI
agent who is holed up at the Marriott Marquis, 12 blocks away,
surrounded by secret files filled with sensitive information
about draft prospects.
The NFL has its own private investigation firm. It is called NFL
Security, and it is rarely seen or spoken about. Unless you're
intimately involved in the business of pro football, you
probably don't know it exists. But if you're a college player
looking to join the NFL, the security office knows you exist. A
primary function of the 40-man force is to dig up facts about
possible draftees. If a player smokes marijuana at
Saturday-night parties, it's probably in his file. If he stays
in bars until 2 a.m., it's probably in his file. If he brawls
with neighbors, it's probably in his file. Investigators are
particularly interested in the old standbys: illegal drugs,
unsavory associations and sports gambling.
"We're providing a service to the employer," says Milt Ahlerich,
who was hired as the NFL's director of security in January after
25 years at the FBI, succeeding Warren Welsh, another former FBI
man, who retired after having held the post since 1980. "For the
amount of money involved here, the employers would like to know
good hard facts about their potential players. They deserve
that. And we're going to get it to them."
The goal is not to prevent potential bad apples from entering
the NFL--a talented player such as Nebraska running back
Lawrence Phillips (page 42) is going to get drafted even though
he has been in trouble with the law--but rather to ensure that
on draft day, teams are educated shoppers. "If a player buys a
home for $1 million, he'd want to know that the hot-water heater
works," says Charley Armey, director of college scouting for the
New England Patriots, which, like the 29 other NFL teams, does
its own investigating to augment the league's efforts. "That's
what we're all doing."
The information is much appreciated. "I don't think you can
overstate the value [of it]," says Miami Dolphins president
Eddie Jones. "You can't afford to stumble. You can't afford to
make a mistake."
During the 10 days before the draft, as many as three
representatives of each team are permitted to sit in a
16th-floor office suite in the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters,
sealed from the world by a double-locked door, and look at any
prospect's file. The team representatives may not make copies,
but they may take notes.
The team reps, which usually include the general manager, are
also given the hottest number in football: a private access code
that allows them, during the two days of the draft, to have
prospects' files read to them over the phone. Because the draft
is filled with surprises and teams often don't know who will be
available until 15 minutes before their turn to pick, the
security men in the Marriott Marquis take dozens of last-minute
calls from general managers posing the same question: "Is this
Owners, general managers and coaches will tell you the league
must conduct these player investigations so owners can protect
their investments and the NFL can safeguard its image. Even on
the nonmanagement side, there are players, union officials and
agents who believe the league has a responsibility to provide an
all-seeing eye. "I understand why they do it," says Gene Upshaw,
the executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).
"I do it myself when I'm hiring people here. I want to know more
than what's on a resume."
But NFL Security also has critics who accuse it of being too
secretive and powerful. These critics claim there are
inaccuracies in some of its investigative reports,
misinformation that can cause a player to go lower in the draft
and thereby lose millions in income. Because NFL Security does
not let players see what's in their files or respond to damaging
allegations the files might contain--in fact, NFL Security
doesn't even talk to the prospects it investigates--some
potential draftees and their agents feel a certain helplessness
as they await draft day. "These guys [from NFL Security] are as
secretive as the KGB and as mean as the Gestapo," says agent
Drew Rosenhaus in a burst of overstatement.
Rosenhaus claims that one of his clients, defensive lineman
Warren Sapp of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was the victim of a
flawed NFL Security report last spring. At the time, Sapp had
just concluded a brilliant college career at Miami. He was
expected to be a top-five pick in the draft.
But in stories last March, The New York Times, citing several
unnamed league sources, reported that Sapp had tested positive
for cocaine and marijuana at the previous month's NFL scouting
combine. The league quickly issued a statement denying that Sapp
had tested positive for cocaine. However, 10 days before the
April 22 draft, team officials got their first chance to read
NFL Security's file on Sapp. The file reportedly said that Sapp
had indeed tested positive for cocaine and had tested positive
for marijuana six times.
Sapp ended up being drafted 12th, by the Bucs, who got him for
$4.4 million over four years, including a $2.3 million signing
bonus--a package worth several million less than what any of the
top five picks received. Half of Sapp's bonus was tied to his
remaining drug-free, and he was required to pass weekly drug
tests throughout his rookie season.
Sapp, Rosenhaus and at least two NFL team officials challenge
some of the information that they say was in Sapp's file. "We
saw what the NFL had," says Bill Kuharich, general manager of
the New Orleans Saints, "but we did our own investigation. Their
information wasn't accurate." When asked for specifics, Kuharich
hedges a little, saying the NFL report had a higher number of
positive drug tests for Sapp than the Saints' report did, but
"remember, [NFL Security has] much more access to people."
Armey, whose team also looked into Sapp's background--the Pats
spend more than a million a year on various investigative
efforts--echoes Kuharich. "Our investigation didn't turn up
anything like the NFL's," he says. "I believe ours." Armey
refuses to cite specific inaccuracies.
Sapp's rookie season was something of a disappointment--he had
three sacks and 27 tackles--but he apparently passed all his
weekly drug tests. Rosenhaus denies his client has ever used
cocaine and says Sapp has tested positive for marijuana only
twice: once while a freshman at Miami and once at the '95
combine. The NFL stands by the accuracy of its information on
Rosenhaus makes the claim that for every Sapp, whose story made
headlines across the country, "there are 10 other guys who fall
from the second round to the fifth because of some secretive NFL
report, but no one ever hears about them." The fact is, a
prospect who drops inexplicably to a lower round of the draft
can never be sure whether an NFL security report is to blame.
And that disturbs a number of players, agents and NFLPA types.
"What we need to know is who is watching the cops," says Ed
Garvey, Upshaw's predecessor at the players' association. "It's
a little frightening because they're not accountable to anyone."
NFL Security is in fact accountable to commissioner Paul
Tagliabue, who in turn is accountable to team owners, a group
that doesn't exactly champion the civil liberties of players.
The security office comprises a director, a deputy, 30 private
investigators (one assigned to each NFL team) and consultants
from drug enforcement and casino gambling. The investigators are
all former law enforcement officials.
Doing background checks on prospects is only one of NFL
Security's tasks. Among other things, it also investigates
reports of improprieties involving players already in the NFL,
coordinates Super Bowl security and, above all, tries to protect
the league's public image.
As far back as the 1950s the NFL was using former FBI agents to
investigate rumors of gambling and improper associations. The
security department was formally established in 1961, and its
efforts led to the suspensions of Green Bay Packers halfback
Paul Hornung and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras for
the 1963 season for gambling on NFL games. League security also
provided the information that in 1969 forced New York Jets
quarterback Joe Namath to give up his interest in Bachelors III,
a New York City watering hole said to be frequented by gamblers
and organized-crime figures.
Given the number of current players who have been arrested or
have tested positive for drugs since entering the league, NFL
Security has hardly succeeded in cleaning up the league's
off-the-field problems, but its officials like to talk tough.
Charlie Jackson, the deputy director, used to conclude his
antidrug speeches to teams by saying, "If you should get caught,
your ass is grass, and I'm the lawn mower."
When looking into a draft prospect, the security men start with
a computer check of public documents such as arrest records and
lawsuits. After that, they interview former girlfriends and
coaches and teachers. At times they use gamblers and drug
dealers as informants. It's an unsavory business, to be sure,
"real Rockford Files stuff," according to one person familiar
with the inner workings of the investigations.
Some players might be surprised to learn what sort of
information could be held against them. One background check by
a team investigator revealed that a prospect in next week's
draft has fathered five children with five different mothers.
Officials of that team have concluded that such a complicated
family life will lead to financial problems and mounting
distractions for the player. The team will pass on him, without
the player's ever knowing why.
"One guy we looked at held up a pizza delivery guy at his
college for $7," says Armey of a prospect in the upcoming draft.
"The player didn't have a gun. He didn't need the $7. He just
was trying something. We have to look at a guy like that and try
to determine where he'll be five years from now, both
professionally and personally. Is this something we should
overlook or not?"
Making that kind of judgment is not easy, but teams tend to be
more accepting of a player's character flaws if he's a likely
starter. University of Miami coach Butch Davis says that when he
was an assistant to then Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson,
from 1989 to '93, "Jimmy would assign one guy to go view [the
NFL Security reports]. Jimmy would give him a list of the 90 to
100 guys we would potentially draft. He would read the reports,
and if there was anything negative, he'd report it to Jimmy.
After that, you could see names that Jimmy--without telling the
rest of us what the problem was--would just take off that board
[listing possible Cowboys draftees]." Yet Johnson did draft
tackle Erik Williams and defensive lineman Leon Lett, who have
helped Dallas win three of the last four Super Bowls but have
had off-the-field troubles (SI, April 8).
Phillips is considered the most extraordinary talent in this
year's draft, but his history of violence--in September he
pleaded no contest to charges that he had assaulted a former
girlfriend--is nearly as well known as his on-field
accomplishments. As a result he has come under particularly
close examination by NFL and team investigators. According to
his agent, Mitch Frankel, every time Phillips went into a bar or
a party in recent months, in Nebraska or elsewhere, the running
back felt the eyes of NFL investigators on him. "There are
people watching, waiting to see--hoping to see--if he screws
up," Frankel says. "He's been under an incredible microscope."
Another likely top pick, USC receiver Keyshawn Johnson, says he
doesn't object to being investigated, in part because he assumes
that if anything is discovered, he'll have a chance to set the
record straight. Wrong. "We don't have to go to the player and
say, 'You want to tell us your side of the story here, Joe? Gee,
this doesn't look so good for you,'" says NFL security director
Ahlerich. "Our facts should be able to stand on their own."
Indeed, as a nongovernmental enterprise the NFL is not required
by law to share its investigative findings with players. It is
not unlike many other businesses. When asked how many Fortune
500 companies investigate highly paid employees before hiring
them, Peter Eide, manager of labor-law policy for the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce, said, "If it is not 100 percent, it is not
lower than 99 percent. You're not going to dump that kind of
money on someone you haven't checked out."
Any college player seeking to join the NFL is expected to make
his life an open book. At the annual combine he's asked to sign
a release allowing the NFL to delve into the private recesses of
his life. He is not required to sign, but it is "suggested" that
he does. No player has ever refused.
The investigative findings don't always remain secret. Those 90
team officials--the three from each team who have formal access
to the information--talk to countless others, who in turn talk to
innumerable others. "When you're circulating highly sensitive
information to 30 teams, it's hard to keep it confidential,"
admits Greg Aiello, the NFL's director of communications.
Such information, accurate or not, can have a devastating
impact. Those New York Times stories last March, again citing
several unnamed NFL sources, reported that running back James
Stewart, one of Sapp's Miami teammates, had also failed a drug
test at the combine. Originally projected as a second-round
pick, Stewart was not taken until the Minnesota Vikings selected
him in the fifth round. He signed a two-year, $323,000 deal with
the Vikings, worth about $1.7 million less than he would have
gotten as a mid- to high-second-round pick. And although he paid
dearly for it, Stewart did not, in fact, fail his combine drug
test. He has since filed a libel suit against the Times. The
newspaper says it expects to win the case.
"It's not just important to do the investigation, it's important
to do it fairly," says Armey. "You have to contact the player. A
lot of the people doing the investigation are just looking for
something bad. There may be good answers. Everyone forgets these
are young kids. They're going to make mistakes. All of us
deserve a second chance."
University of Miami linebacker Ray Lewis, a friend of Sapp's who
is projected as a first-round pick in next week's draft, worries
that the NFL Security dossier on him may include inaccurate and
damaging information. In the last 18 months Lewis has twice been
investigated in connection with reports of battery, but he has
never been arrested or charged.
"I'm going to be wondering about what [the NFL investigators]
say I've done," says Lewis. "It's got to be on the mind of
anyone who has had any kind of incident in their past. You've
got to wonder if that's why they're not taking you. The problem
is, you'll never know. Draft day should be the best day of your
life, but depending on what they say about you and who believes
it, it could be a bad day. It's a frightening feeling, really.
And it's real scary that they don't talk to you about it."
Neither Lewis nor any other highly touted player need worry too
much: No star player has ever been denied a spot in the NFL
because of a background check. Come next week, some team will
find Lewis's talents irresistible, no matter what 30 general
managers found when they looked through his top-secret security
file behind the NFL's closed doors.
COLOR PHOTO: CRAIG BLANKENHORN Ahlerich, a former FBI agent, is the chief of a 40-man force. [Milt Ahlerich]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Sapp (76), a sure top-five pick, dropped to 12th after a negative report from Tagliabue's investigators. [Warren Sapp in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [See caption above--Warren Sapp at NFL draft]COLOR PHOTO: MARK KAUFFMAN Gambling evidence dug up by NFL investigators led to suspensions for stars Hornung and Karras. [Paul Hornung on cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED]
COLOR PHOTO: MARVIN E. NEWMAN [See caption above--Alex Karras in game]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Lewis fears his secret NFL file might include misinformation. [Ray Lewis in game]