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Trying to meet both standards

Posted Jan 17, 2013

(Second in a series)

The story goes like this: A well-paid coach for a high-profile professional football team was asked whether he would allow an ex-convict to play for him. The coach leaned back in his chair and thought for only a few seconds before answering with another question. “What’s his 40-time?”

And another one: When a different well-paid coach for a high-profile professional football team was discussing the kinds of players he was looking for, his answer was: “At 1 p.m. on Sundays, all the choir boys should be in church.”

Hyperbole to be sure, and the National Football League under Commissioner Roger Goodell has taken steps and initiated rules to govern player conduct and those rules carry some significant penalties. As a result there has been some significant progress made throughout the NFL in the area that would fall under the heading of “cleaning up the game.”

But what also must be understood is that it takes a certain kind of person to excel in a sport as violent as professional football, and trying to find human beings who are sufficiently aggressive and physical and willing to use their own bodies to punish another person’s body, trying to find human beings with those qualities who also possess sufficient confidence/ego to thrive in competitively pressure situations that would cause most to wilt, trying to human beings with all of that who also have the psychological on-off switch to keep all of those emotions under control everywhere except within the white lines of a football field is an inexact science. In a lot of ways, it’s pure guesswork.

The Steelers always have believed in a standard of behavior for their players, and they expect that standard to be upheld right along with the other standard at the core of their organizational structure: to compete for a championship every single season. In General Manager Kevin Colbert’s mind, the responsibility for marrying those two often conflicting goals is his.

And he said on Jan. 16 that he’s not really pleased with the job he has done lately.

“All of those decisions fall back on me,” said Colbert, “because I signed off on every one (of those players.)”

There were two recent incidents that have combined to call into question the organization’s standard of player behavior and how it deals with individuals who violate it.

To put names to all of this – Alameda Ta’amu and Chris Rainey.

In mid-October, Ta’amu was involved in an incident that had him charged with felony fleeing police, aggravated assault, and aggravated assault by vehicle after attempting to flee a traffic stop following a night of drinking. Ta’amu was suspended by the Steelers for two games without pay at that time, but he was kept on the roster or practice squad through the remainder of the season. He is currently on the team’s offseason roster.

Following the season, Rainey was arrested and charged with one count of simple battery (dating violence) in Gainesville, Fla. According to the original police statement, Rainey and a woman described as his girlfriend got into an argument that turned physical, with Rainey slapping the woman across the face with an open hand. The Steelers waived him in a matter of hours after learning of the arrest.

Why the difference? What makes Ta’amu different than Rainey in terms of how the Steelers responded?

“Any time we cut a player and make a statement that the reason was for a character indiscretion, you have to believe we are doing it because that player has lost the trust of the organization,” said Colbert. “That’s the breaking point, if we do something of that nature.”

There are a lot of things that go into “losing the trust of the organization,” according to Colbert, who also explained that each case is viewed individually.

“When we decide to make a move like that, it’s a discussion with myself, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II,” said Colbert. “Once we had the discussion (about Rainey), we made the decision. We felt it was the time to do it. Technically, a player cannot be waived until a day after the Super Bowl. We were aware of that. However, we felt the need to make the move, and we did.”

But Colbert also said that a lot goes into the process of the Steelers even making the decision to draft a player who had a DUI while in college, like Ta’amu, or an incident in college with a girlfriend where charges were brought against him, like Rainey.

“You try to do as much homework as possible in any situation, whether it’s free agency, waivers or the draft,” said Colbert. “The truth of the matter is, the pool of talent is not perfect. We understand that. We don’t use that as a crutch, but there will be risks taken at different points. You have to assume the risks, and we did. This year, obviously, we have had a couple of situations that didn’t work out as well as we would have liked.”

Approximately one-fourth of the players available in a particular draft class have some type of character issue on their record. The key is, the difficulty is, trying to determine which of those individuals is a real problem and which might simply have made the kind of mistake a lot of college-age men have made. Church congregations, PTAs, medical schools, law schools, Congress even, contain people who have done knucklehead things, but if it’s a one-time occurrence they can be worth the risk. It’s the identifying of the one-timers that’s not so simple.

“For instance, in draft preparation, we go through a process that eliminates a lot of players, and I am not talking about late-round-free-agent guys,” said Colbert. “I’m talking about high-round, potential first-round picks and actual first-round picks we took off our draft board, because we didn’t want to assume what we perceived to be the risk. Everybody knows we had two guys get in trouble this year. There were incidents in their pasts that may have indicated that could happen. We knew that. We understood the risk. We took it. And quite honestly, there were a couple of situations that didn’t work out.

“That’s not going to stop us in the future from looking at players, because each player is going to be an individual who will be judged and investigated individually. If we draft him, then we’ve made the decision. Again, all of those decisions fall back on me, because I signed off on every one of them.”

MONDAY: The impact of the Steelers’ turnover ratio on their 2012 record.

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