This week's Rookie Symposium has been a hot topic lately -- not necessarily because it's a highly anticipated event, but because guests like Pacman Jones and Michael Vick have been invited to speak to the incoming crop of NFL players. These two men, with the help of Terrell Owens and several others, will be teaching the rookies important lessons about how to act and what to expect as professional athletes and role models.
But looking past these newsmaking speakers, the event serves a very important role in the development of rookies. Troy Vincent, the Vice President of Player Engagement for the NFL, calls it "the most comprehensive employee orientation in the world." In generic orientations you just get an introduction to the company and what the workplace culture is like. But these NFL rookies will also be warned about the dangers that come with their high-profile positions, and asked to think about their life after football. As a former NFL player of 16 seasons, Vincent can speak from experience when he says, "We know our bodies have expiration dates ... even though the employees are being welcomed into the league, they are also being set up to transition away from it."
In comparison to Symposiums of old, this year's will emphasize personal attention and trying to create the best environment for learning. In the past, the event has been information overload, with every drafted rookie being subjected to the same message at the same time. "There was so much information in the past," Vincent said, "it was hard to walk away with anything. This year we are cleaning it up." As of Sunday, the rookies have been divided up into AFC and NFC groups for two separate sessions. With fewer bodies, the speakers will be more effective at getting their message across to the players. "In the past there wasn't much dialogue. With this new system, we want the employees to ask questions and be vulnerable," Vincent said.
That message is one that deals with the history of the NFL, the NFL experience, player policy, and a commitment to the community.
But this orientation doesn't take a flowery approach to life as a professional athlete. A fair amount of the material being covered over the course of the four-day camp deals with warnings about the dangers of the NFL lifestyle, as well as responsibilities and expectations associated with being in the NFL. Vincent made it very clear when he said, "These players are no longer on scholarship, there is no longer anyone there to wake them up when they have to get up. There are expectations here."
This year's event is taking place in Aurora, Ohio, a stark contrast to recent locations of California and Palm Beach, Florida. Moving away from the distractions of those areas, the Symposium is forcing the rookies to focus strictly on the seriousness of their future. "There's no lights, camera, action," Vincent said. "We moved the Symposium to Ohio to build a relationship with the history of the league, and to engage at the community level."
The overwhelming thing that the NFL is trying to stress to these rookies is to be responsible, and to understand that they have obligations to people other than themselves. This message is where speakers like Vick, Jones and Owens come in. If the league wants to educate players to avoid the pratfalls of NFL life, they've picked a good trio to demonstrate how a great career could turn bad. Jones has dealt with a host of suspensions and arrests since entering the NFL, but has managed to turn himself around and stay out of trouble lately. Vick spent 23 months in federal prison for organizing and funding an illegal dogfighting ring. And even though Owens doesn't have the same legal record as his counterparts, he's still been a very controversial player on the field who has had his questionable behavior analyzed ad nauseum. All three men are very recognizable NFL figures, but not entirely for the right reasons.
So what kind of message is this sending the naïve orientation-goers? Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas, a rookie in 2011, says it's a good one. "Pacman has been in and out of trouble," Thomas said. "You know he's been through a lot and he will definitely help teach the rookies."
Vincent echoes the same sort of notion. "Each person has their own story. You want to hear from someone who has walked the same path and gone through the things that you're about to go through. Their stories empower us, and when you begin to circle the wagon, it's a powerful thing." Jones is just one of at least 12 people who will speak, but he can provide a more genuine warning, given the consequences of some of his early-career lifestyle choices. Vick is in the same boat, and it could be sufficient enough for the two of them to take their place at the podium and say, "Don't do what we did!"
It's impossible to know right away if the rookies will embrace what they learn at the Symposium, but the tradition is important. Thomas, who attended the Players Association's three-day "Business of Football, Rookie Edition" camp last summer, said "It helps you on some everyday stuff about being in the NFL as a rookie, period. Coach Herm Edwards was there giving speeches about going to the clubs ... and just being a pro athlete. I learned a lot from that."