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Antonio Smith situation reinforces need for better vetting of players

Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith is being held out of OTAs as he's being investigated for child abuse. His situation shows why, in a post-Ray Rice world, teams need to be more proactive about vetting potential new additions.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On Wednesday, the Broncos did nothing at all extraordinary. They held their first day of organized team activities. Peyton Manning threw a football. He handed it off some, too. Von Miller caught a pick.

Defensive end Antonio Smith was not present.

Smith, 33, is a veteran who was cut by Oakland in March and signed by Denver on April 2. He played on Gary Kubiak’sTexans from 2009-13. And since November he’s been under investigation in Fort Bend County, Texas, for child abuse that police described as “sexual in nature.”

TMZ broke the news of the investigation last week, and Wednesday’s team activities were the Broncos’ first, apart from a golf outing, since the revelation. Since that day, Broncos brass and new head coach Kubiak have been engaged in conversation with the defensive end, a conversation that culminated over the holiday weekend in a mutual decision that Smith would stay home and focus on his legal troubles.

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​For now, all that is known about Smith’s situation is this: An accusation was levied, the Fort Bend Sheriff’s department investigated and it deemed the issue serious enough to pass on to the district attorney. No charges have been filed, and Kubiak stressed that the team’s decision on Smith shouldn’t be viewed as a punishment or judgment, and he very much shied away from the idea that the Broncos had in any way ordered Smith not to participate.

Even so, in the hours since the news of Smith’s absence broke, fans and sports writers alike have taken to the Internet to praise John Elway and company. They took the moral high ground. They went above and beyond. No. They did none of that, nothing even close to extraordinary. They did what they were supposed to do, the right thing, no more, no less.

Just weeks ago, though, the Broncos may have relied too much on familiarity. Kubiak and Smith had worked well together in the past in Houston. Sure, the child abuse investigation might not have popped up on a cursory background check. But in today’s NFL, aren’t teams obligated, and better served, to do more? Yes, it’s impossible to know what level of investigation would have turned up these allegations, but in the post-Ray Rice world, teams have to do their research or risk falling victim to sanctions imposed by the league’s new personal conduct policy. If the Broncos did do their best to look into Smith and still didn't turn up the investigation, that doesn't make them bad people; it could, however, hurt their product on the field​. Accusations, allegations, crimes—none can be swept under the rug any longer, but teams still fall short of doing their due diligence on many incoming players.

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Just look at the draft. This year’s top pick, Jameis Winston, has a record that includes an accusation of rape, yet his new team, the Buccaneers, never spoke to the woman who levied that accusation. They did, however, talk to 75 other references about the quarterback, and not long after coach Lovie Smith told the media that his team needed to be able to “look a guy in the eye and feel comfortable with the answers that you're getting,” Tampa general manager Jason Licht said these two sentences to the MMQB’s Peter King: “We read the depositions. We knew what she was going to say.”

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​​Then why not unturn the stone, let her say what they already “knew” she’d say? Why didn’t the Seahawks interview the woman their second-round pick, Frank Clark, allegedly assaulted? Why didn’t the Bears speak to any of Ray McDonald’s accusers before they inked him to a deal? He’d already been cut in 2014 by the 49ers after being arrested twice on domestic violence charges, after all. Chicago released him on Monday, barely two months after signing him, when he was yet again arrested—and on Wednesday, the team’s chairman still shied away from saying he wishes he’d spoken to McDonald’s accusers before signing him.

Yes, Winston, Clark and McDonald all had known raps when their teams were interviewing and scouting them. Smith didn’t. But that doesn’t absolve any team from going further in its background checks than it would have a year ago. It doesn’t mean they’ll catch everything or prevent anything. Nothing is perfect, but teams can be better.

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Today’s NFL is a different—and I hope better—league than it was a year ago, with a far more stringent personal conduct policy, and even if charges aren’t brought in the investigation into Smith, the NFL will conduct its own investigation. That means the defensive end could miss time regardless, and Denver could be out a player.

“I would love to have had all the information, yes, at some point,'' Kubiak said Wednesday of the Broncos’ ignorance of the investigation. “But you know what, that's come and gone. So it's time right now to do the right thing and to go about it each day the right way.”

The right thing: It’s to cut Smith if charges are filed, to bring him back if they aren’t, to hold judgment until then. The Broncos hope to have more information on the investigation in “a week or two,” Kubiak said; until then, we wait and Smith sits.