Steelers' off-field woes attributed to 'entitlement' jock culture

By Scott Brown and Carl Prine, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, April 18, 2010
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Milledgeville, Ga. Over the past three years, off-the-field incidents tied to Steelers' players and young women have triggered police investigations of wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Cedrick Wilson both booted from the team and linebacker James Harrison, who sought anger management counseling after slugging the mother of his child.

District Attorney Fred Bright punted Monday on prosecuting star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the alleged rape of a 20-year-old Georgia College and State University student here, but called on him to "grow up."

Roethlisberger continues to fight a Nevada lawsuit alleging he assaulted a casino worker there.

Former football greats, their agents, experts on sports management and the psychology of violence say the problems dogging Roethlisberger and other Steelers may reflect a jock culture of entitlement that begins in youth. If unaddressed by peers, coaches and other strong role models, they said, that notion of invincibility and dominion over women can erupt into brutality or create sex scandals.

"There's absolutely no question there's that sense of entitlement, but it starts way before the money is paid to the players," said Ralph Cindrich, a Carnegie agent and attorney who represents stars such as Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "It really starts with the highly recruited high school guys, and the colleges to me are the facilitators of that mentality.

"It's the way they're recruited and what is said. In college, by the time they're seniors, they're just prima donnas. There are far less of the old-school guys out there. And when you get them, they're just a pleasure to be around and a pleasure to deal with."

Old school

Those "old school" grads say that deteriorating family values, a fan culture that worships stars, entourages that enable boorish behavior by millionaire sports heroes and the ready availability of booze and sex all conspire to make today's athletes more likely to foul up.

Back in the day, they had to moonlight just to make ends meet. Terry Bradshaw might have won four Super Bowls en route to a Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, but he lived in a modest home and toiled in the off-season as a fishing guide, used car salesman, pipeline welder and briefly as a country music singer. He didn't have enough time or money to exist in a perpetual state of jet skiing and clubbing, much less get into situations that led to rape allegations. He had to grow up, and the first step was realizing sports greatness didn't make him a god above everyone else, he explained.

"I'm in the real world, and these kids are just placed up on a pedestal, and they're phenomenal, talented people, and they just get special treatment, and I think if you're not mature enough you can't handle it," said Bradshaw. "I think pretty much that's Ben's thing. His actions just point to immaturity."

Former Kansas City Chiefs running back Abner Haynes, 72, says veteran players such as Bradshaw served a vital role in NFL locker rooms by reinforcing a model of citizenship and self-discipline that was the hallmark of the Rooney family's franchise for decades. That kept young guns like Roethlisberger in line so that they could mature.

"In our day, we didn't tolerate that kind of behavior," Haynes said. "I'm not just talking about the accusations. I'm talking about chasing after women like that. Players today, hitting women like that. We had mentors in the locker room to teach us about what I call the 'ignorance of anger.' We had men who taught us the right way to treat women, and what was out of bounds.

"The way I see it is, if these sorts of allegations can involve a player from the Steelers, the Rooneys' Steelers, then it's time for all of us to sit down and start a conversation about this."

The conversation

To some former pros, the problem starts with paychecks. This year, Roethlisberger stands to make about $1 million for every game he plays at Heinz Field.

"I bet a million bucks would have paid the base salary of a starting defense," said J.T. Thomas, the former Steel Curtain cornerback drafted by the Steelers in 1973. "The 11 guys that started in Super Bowl X, and I think most of them were All-Pros, you probably could have paid with a million bucks."

Big Ben's millions buy a never-ending party for him and his "Ben-a-Palooza" entourage, according to the four volumes of the Milledgeville criminal report. That entourage included two off-duty cops Pennsylvania State Trooper Ed Joyner and Coraopolis patrolman Tony Barravecchio along with Steelers lineman Willie Colon, California sports marketing guru Nima "Nemo" Zarrabi and former Miami of Ohio football star Jaime Cooper. Big Ben's neighbor Brian "Jake" Jacobelli and Moon Township chum Brad Aurila joined them in Milledgeville, along with Avery Lane, a childhood friend from Findlay, Ohio.

None returned telephone calls from the Trib. Their statements to police paint a picture of Barravecchio and Joyner fetching Roethlisberger's groceries, fending off fawning fans, paying bar tabs, feeding his dog when he's out of town and retrieving free Hummers for his use courtesy of a local dealership the trappings of a man who inked a $102 million contract two years ago and spends his time off golfing at the tony Reynolds Plantation Country Club when he's not at his lakeside mansion or buying steak dinners in Atlanta, according to the police files.

"There are people doing whatever they can for them" star players such as Roethlisberger "and so it sort of breeds not only that sense of entitlement, but a sense of people being there for whatever they need," said Jeff Fishman, a lawyer and wealth adviser at JSF Financial Planning Los Angeles that caters to the rich, including Hollywood personalities and pro athletes.

He calls Roethlisberger's tragic fall "sudden-wealth syndrome" and it's not reserved for a late-blooming kid once known as quiet, religious and studious, with a blue-collar work ethic, willing himself to stardom.

It happens all the time, which is why the NFL and the players' union insist they're there to help change destructive conduct.

"We have a very clear league policy on personal conduct that applies to everyone in the NFL," said league spokesman Greg Aiello. "The vast majority of players are good citizens, and many are outstanding contributors to their communities. But some people make mistakes. They must be held accountable and given the opportunity to change their conduct."

NFL Players Association spokesman Carl Francis says that the best opportunity for players to change comes from special programs run jointly by the league, union and teams since 1991. They help players and their families cope with problems the NFL classifies as "personal stressors" that accompany the sudden immersion in wealth and fame.

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers' coordinator of player programs is an "old school" vet, former Buffalo Bills cornerback Ray Jackson. He helps troubled players receive confidential, free counseling by local specialists. Counselors annually conduct mandatory "life skills" classes, with rookies getting special attention.

Role models

The Steelers say they don't track the names or numbers of players seeking help.

Some question, however, whether the programs are netting the athletes too late in life, especially those who grew up in broken families.

"I think the game evolves, but people are people, and we may have larger numbers of people that are coming up that are born without a father and other factors like that, that make it tough, and maybe they haven't learned right from wrong or had that authority figure in their life," said Jack Del Rio, an NFL linebacker from 1985 to 1996 and today head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Haynes said few of today's stars volunteer for his nonprofit group, Heroes of Football, but Hall of Famers Len Dawson, Bob Lilly and the late Merlin Olsen had long gone to camps and schools to fight the player's sense of entitlement and the poor treatment of women.

Since 1993, the Mentors in Violence Prevention, or MVP, program run by Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society has had a little better luck, landing pros like Cleveland Browns tight end Ben Watson to reach out to players at more than 100 middle and high school and college programs.

MVP's strategy: Teach players to see women as something other than sexual toys or punching bags, according to Jarrod Chin, director of violence prevention and diversity at the center. The key, he says, is for players to start thinking of themselves as helpful bystanders who will come to a woman's aid when they see fellow pros exhibiting destructive behavior.

"Let's say this is a loved one we're talking about. Wouldn't you want a bystander to intervene to help her?" Chin said.

"We know that there probably is a man in the room who is a perpetrator. But if we reorient their thinking, treating everyone now as a 'bystander,' we get past that defensiveness and can begin to work on the underlying issues."

MVP counselors work with the New England Patriots, the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos.

The Steelers don't use MVP.

After high-profile allegations of violence committed by their players, the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Bengals gladly welcomed MVP counselors into the locker rooms.