Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The NFL: Where second, and third, chances are commonplace


Lost behind the biggest NFL headline of this week, the end of Michael Vick's prison sentence and home confinement, was this little nugget:

Chris Henry is still in the NFL, still a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, and, apparently, doing very well and staying out of trouble.

I was shocked when I read the news the first time, so I found another source. And sure enough, the 26-year-old is behaving well both on and off the field and receiving praise from teammates, including respected quarterback Carson Palmer.

In case you don't know Henry — or, smartly, chose to expunge any thoughts of him from your brain — he's a young, talented wide receiver out of West Virginia. He was also one of the dumbest, most immature professional athletes in this country.

I thought he'd never change.

His rap sheet reads like this (it'll take a minute):

— Dec. 2005: Pulled over for speeding. Marijuana found. Driving without valid license or insurance.

— Jan. 2006: Arrested for multiple gun charges, including concealment and aggravated assault.

— May 2006: Investigated for an alleged sex crime that occurred in a Kentucky hotel room, but no charges were filed.

— June 2006: Pulled over and had a blood-alcohol content level above the legal limit.

— Oct. 2006: Suspended two games by the NFL for violating its personal conduct and substance abuse policies.

— Jan. 2007: Pleaded guilty to providing minors with alcohol during a 2006 incident.

— April 2007: Suspended eight games by the NFL for violating its personal conduct policy and is given a warning that more problems could end his career in the league.

— Nov. 2007: Allegedly assaulted a valet.

— March 2008: Allegedly punched a man and threw a beer bottle through the man's car window. He was waived by the Bengals a day after the arrest.

Got all that?

Granted, many of the incidents above don't exactly make Henry the worst person in society. If I had a dime for every fraternity brother who has hooked up minors with booze, I'd be retired and living in an O.C.-like mansion.

Still, during a two-year period Henry showed no signs of learning his lessons and being a law-abiding citizen. He continued to take his life of fame and money for granted and think he was above the law.

And he came pretty close to misbehaving his way out of the NFL.

But Bengals management has a history of taking in players with character issues, and that's what it did again before last season, re-signing Henry in a move that I called ludicrous at the time.

How could the team know he'd get his act together?

That, however, is exactly what's happened over the past year. Now who knows for sure what will become of Henry, but judging from what others are saying and just not him, he's finally turned that corner and could be a productive citizen.

On about his eighth chance, give or take.

Now, of course, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's focus is on Vick and whether he should reinstate the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback who ran a dogfighting ring and helped in the killings of underperforming dogs.

I really don't know what Goodell will do. I guess it depends on whether he thinks 23 months of prison and home confinement changed Vick into a morally positive man.

I also don't know if that's the case. I'd have an extremely hard time forgiving someone for such acts, and I can't even imagine what would push someone to do something so heinous for two years.

What I do know is that the NFL is good at giving second chances.

Just look at Henry's case. He's not one of the most talented players in the league and he's never had close to the fame that Vick had when he was the star of the Falcons and was making Nike commercials in his spare time.

But he was never suspended indefinitely from the league, and the Bengals gave him that extra chance that might just have awakened him to how close he came to being ignored by the entire league.

Vick's crimes, obviously, are much worse than anything Henry did. Henry didn't kill anything and didn't badly hurt anyone (although he endangered others by driving recklessly).

But if Vick is truly repentant and ready to be an honest man of integrity, someone who will genuinely speak out against acts such as the ones he committed, why shouldn't he deserve a second chance in the league?

I won't criticize Goodell either way. He's the person who will sit across from Vick and look into the man's eyes.

And I won't criticize any of the 32 teams that passes on signing Vick if he is, indeed, reinstated. I don't care how badly a team needs a quarterback — why would management put itself through the PR nightmare of signing the guy?

I surmise one of the morals of Vick's story, at the moment, is that the more famous you are, the harder it is to bounce back after a dreadful crime. If a lesser-known player had committed the terrible acts, he probably wouldn't have gotten so much negative publicity.

But if I were Vick right now, I'd look at players like Henry and Leonard Little — He crashed into and killed a woman while driving drunk in 1998 and then drove while intoxicated, and speeding, again in 2004; yet he's continued to play for the St. Louis Rams and hasn't had any more off-the-field problems — and be confident about getting another chance in the league.

Just not now.

As has been reported, his best chance this fall might be in the new UFL, whose coaches have shown interest. Playing in the four-team league would obviously be six steps down from the NFL, but it'd be a good start for a reconciled Michael Vick.

And maybe, in a year or two, I'll look at Vick, in an NFL uniform, and see another young man who benefited greatly from getting another chance, or two — deserved or not — in life and on the football field.

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