In addition to my media roles, I serve as Director of the Jeffrey Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at Villanova University School of Law. As part of that job, I host and moderate an annual symposium featuring thought leaders in our field on topical sports issues of the day. This year’s event brought together leading voices both on collegiate side—with one of the NCAA’s new leaders, the progressive-thinking Oliver Luck (known better as Andrew’s father) and change agents Ramogi Huma and Jeffrey Kessler—and the professional side. I will share some highlights of a couple NFL-related speakers here.
David and I have known each other since attending rival high schools in Washington D.C., and we later graduated together from Georgetown Law School. We both have had stops representing players and management; he once worked for the NFL and was close with Commissioner Roger Goodell during that time. He has now become the go-to guy for players—and agents—who need an advocate. I have had exchanges with him on various players—Alex Rodriguez among them—and the focus last Friday was on Jameis Winston.
Cornwell is the “family advisor” to Winston. He accepted that role while around the same time turning down an opportunity to represent Ray Rice.
Brandt: How did you distinguish those—Rice and Winston?
Cornwell: I viewed the developments in the Jameis Winston case through the prism of innocence. When I saw the video of Ray hitting Janay, I viewed everything through the prism of a father of a daughter.
Cornwell spent a good amount of time attacking both the media coverage of Winston and the motivations of his accuser, and her lawyer. At one point, I jumped in.
Brandt: David, you are painting a broad brush.
Cornwell: I hope every single one of you is uncomfortable about this. I am telling you, we need to make a difference in the way that journalists cover sports. It’s changed! This is the first time that we have seen the vilification of an athlete drop into the amateur ranks at this level.
I understood his forceful defense of Winston, but asked this about someone to which an NFL team is soon going to invest more than $20 million in guaranteed money:
Brandt: You will admit Jameis has done some knucklehead things—the crab legs, the shouting vulgarities in the lunchroom, etc.?
Cornwell: I doubt that he is the first NCAA athlete to demonstrate that he’s immature and a knucklehead. Jameis is ready to be an NFL quarterback on the field, but he is not ready to be an NFL player off the field.
That last comment drew quite a reaction, recounted in virtually every sports news outlet, and Cornwell has been answering questions about it since. While I understand the headline, as the person asking the question and sitting next to him as the words came out, I did not think them to be shocking. Indeed, Cornwell later said:
Cornwell: In some ways, he’s very immature and other ways he’s got maturity and some things that are just off the charts. One of them is—and this will sound odd—but he has an incredible sense of self-awareness and self-responsibility.
I have learned through experience to take the word of agents and attorneys talking about their player clients with a grain of salt. As a team executive, I was often assured that players were reformed and incapable of getting into the trouble that, of course, they eventually did. I would rather hear an advocate tell me of his client’s weaknesses than be delusional as to his strengths. And, of course, every team that has studied Winston knows his off-field maturity needs to improve.
Cornwell’s description of Winston’s visit to the NFL offices and meeting with Goodell, at Winston’s urging, was interesting and showed a more private side of Goodell consistent with his being the “Conduct Commissioner.”
Cornwell: In the commissioner’s office, off in the right corner is a replica of the Lombardi Trophy. And Jameis walked up to that and said, ‘I’ma get one of these.’ And the Commissioner turned around and said, ‘I’d prefer if you got one of those,’ and pointed to the Walter Payton Man of the Year Trophy, and walked Jameis over to the trophy, and talked to him about what it meant to win the Man of the Year Trophy, being elected by your peers for making a difference.
Cornwell went on to say how he counseled Winston on taking advantage of the many resources the league office had to offer.
Cornwell: I told him, ‘Listen, if you decide not to avail yourself of these resources, you better have an option. Because this league will chew you up and spit you out and keep going.’ The league is very good at getting rid of players. So our role is to make sure that, first, he knows what his resources are, and second, that he avails himself of them.
My final question dealt with what football fans wanted to hear:
Brandt: Does he go number one?
Cornewell: Book it.
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The NFL made several hires, many of them women, in the days following the Sept. 8 release of the Ray Rice elevator video. One of the most important of those hires was Cynthia Hogan, the league’s new senior vice president of public policy and governmental affairs, who shaped and drafted the Violence against Women Act more than 20 years ago.
I found Hogan confident and secure yet humble in realizing the challenges ahead.
Brandt: You were hired in the same week that the Ray Rice elevator video went viral. Coincidence?
Hogan: I thought you were going to ask, ‘What were you thinking?’ I think the coincidence in my coming to the league in September is that I had this history in working with issues around violence against women. I have unbelievable admiration for the people who work on the front lines in this space. But, I knew a fair amount about their work, and about the way they understood these issues, having spent years talking to them.
There’s a lot of counterintuitive behavior that goes on around family violence. There is emotional dependence. There is financial dependence. You know, these are complicated situations. It’s not like stranger violence. And so you have behavior around this type of crime that you don’t see in crime involving strangers.
I mean domestic violence is not something that just occurs in the NFL or in sports. It’s a huge societal problem. What I saw from working in criminal justice in the federal government is that so much crime is related to domestic violence. You know, 40% of mass shootings, right, I mean, it’s just an unbelievable driver of criminal behavior. So, it’s not an athlete problem. It’s not an NFL problem only. But, because of the attention that’s given to athletes, because of the huge attention that’s given to the NFL, that gives us, we believe, a responsibility, and an opportunity to turn this back to say, ‘We need to deal with this.’
You know my attitude was a little, ‘I’ve been trying to get people to pay this much attention to violence against women for 25 years. This is great.’ And, I would say the commissioner was a little bit like, ‘Well, I’m going to try to get that perspective.’ But, I actually think the league has gotten that perspective. We brought this on ourselves, but we want to make sure the difference we make, in the end, is one that’s positive.
I asked about players who have been put on “leave” yet are winning in legal settings, such as Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.
Hogan: I do think that we’re in a little bit of this bubble because we have just this small number of cases that we’re kind of caught where we have discipline that’s occurring after the new personal conduct policy has been adopted, but for conduct that occurred beforehand. So, that’s a legal complication. Hardy will be the last case like that.
So, we have these complications, but I think that what we’ve tried to do a little bit, is cut through them and say, especially going forward, ‘Our standards are crystal clear. They’re clear to every club owner. They’re clear to every team management. They’re clear to every player. They’re clear to every employee in the league. We have just hired two special counsels: Todd Jones, who is an amazing Federal law enforcement figure and leader from the last several decades, and Lisa Friel, who is a fantastic investigator. And, the level of professionalism that they will bring to this process, I mean—I just think it’s going to be outstanding, and I think it’s going to really be state of the art in terms of what a private employer can do.
Hogan also was well aware of the conflicts with the NFLPA regarding the development and implementation of the league’s new personal conduct policy. I asked her about the contentious relationship between the league and the union.
Hogan: I work in Washington so I am used to people who can’t get along and can’t find compromise, and I think it’s a huge missed opportunity. I have to say in this particular area, we had a real disagreement with the union that we couldn't bridge. We consulted them constantly throughout revising the personal conduct policy, but their perspective was—and I understand it as a union perspective—they didn’t want players off the field until the criminal justice system had gone all the way through the appeal level. The Commissioner was simply not willing to do that. So, there we had a real dispute that we couldn’t bridge. But, generally, we should be working hand and glove with the union on a host of issues, and I hope I can help that.
* * *
There were plenty of other NFL-related speakers at the symposium, including coach Dick Vermeil, former star running backs Warrick Dunn and Brian Westbrook, and one of the top agents in the industry, David Dunn. I plan to share their comments—some of which may surprise readers—in the next column.
* * *
The chilling accounts of Sharper’s predatory behavior with women in recent years, expertly chronicled by ProPublica and the New Orleans Advocate, have left me confounded and caused me to question not only how well I knew Darren in our six years together at the Packers, but also how well we really know anyone.
In team management, most stay emotionally neutral on players to avoid any appearance of preferential treatment. However, it is only human to have favorites, and Sharper was one of mine. He was, in many ways, the picture of success: one of the league’s top players at his position (and, thanks to my having little leverage in negotiations with him, the highest paid), articulate, handsome and a leader. When general manager Ron Wolf and I talked about our team in those years, around 1999-2002, we always pointed to Darren as a core player representing the team well on and off the field.
Beyond his playing skills, Darren had an engaging and likeable personality and was a regular presence in our offices. I jokingly referred to him as our assistant general manager as he always had an opinion on which players to draft, re-sign, etc. I especially remember him advising me while trying to secure an extension for our left tackle, Chad Clifton, telling me “You better sign him cause if not, every time Brett is sacked in the next five years the whole team is going to look up at you in the box.” I thanked him for that (and we re-signed Chad).
Darren left the Packers in 2005; the horrific descriptions of his behavior begin after leaving football in 2010. Perhaps the shocking behavior happened long after our time together in Green Bay but after reading these unnerving reports, it is hard to be sure.
It is often said that we, as the public and the media, do not really know these guys, which is true. As someone living inside the Packers’ bubble for six years with Darren, I thought I knew him well. Clearly I did not.
* * *
Speaking of athletes who we don't really know, a note on Aaron Hernandez and the Patriots after the guilty verdict of murder in the first degree yesterday.
It was quite a time for the Patriots on the summer of 2013, when they (1) released Hernandez as he was being led away from his in handcuffs, (2) offered a jersey buyback soon thereafter, and (3) scrubbed his name and accomplishments from the team web site. Despite their best efforts, however, the team could not completely erase Hernandez's existence on their team, with Robert Kraft taking the stand in his trial a couple of weeks ago and constant references to his time on the team. Indeed, Hernandez will now be confined in jail a couple of miles from the team and the stadium in which he played.
I continue to wonder about what the Patriots knew about Hernandez in light of the lavish contract they bestowed upon him in 2012. This is not to suggest in any way that they had any inkling that Hernandez was capable of murder. However, it is hard to believe there were not signs of questionable behavior. Obviously, Hernandez fell in the draft (to the fourth round) due to some character issues, and the Patriots could rationalize having him there on a fixed and reasonable rookie contract. However, after only two years and only halfway through his rookie deal, they tore up that contract and replaced it with a $40 million deal with a striking $12.5 million signing bonus. That was a rare early renegotiation (it would not even be allowed today as the new CBA requires three years before any renegotiation) representing that Hernandez was a core player important to secure for the future. The team made a rare bet on a young player, at significant cost, and it was a curious one.
In a year where player conduct has been in focus, another reminder of player misconduct—in its most egregious form—resonated throughout the news this week. It is a chapter in the Patriots and NFL's recent past that they can not move away from quickly enough.
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