The Rookie Symposium - The NFL's Orientation Program

The NFL's 14th annual four-day Rookie Symposium starts today and runs through the 30th. This year, it will be held at the LaCosta Hotel and Conference Center in Carlsbad, Ca. The new draftees are about to get a crash course on all of the dos and don'ts in their transition from college to the pros. The symposium focuses on helping rookies adjust to life in the NFL by bringing in guest speakers and experts in a number of different areas to discuss various issues. It is something the league takes very seriously. The Symposium was created in 1997 as a vehicle to guide players through the murky waters of becoming even more celebrated athletes. It is essentially an orientation program to indoctrinate these newcomers to life in the NFL and all that entails. It helps set the tone for what the rookies can expect in their first year, using a blend of motivational seminar, boot camp, and "Scared Straight," cautionary tales. The NFL spends $750,000 on this event, and it is probably one of the better programs sponsored by the league.

These young players suddenly have more money than they've ever had in their lives. The Symposium's purpose is to raise the awareness of the temptations that come with an instant increase in salary and fame. OK, that and maintain a good public image for the multi-billion dollar entertainment empire known as the NFL.

What can happen when 22 year olds are suddenly handed a million or twenty? The temptations can add up quickly. Michael Vick comes to mind. Or how about Pacman Jones? For every Dontae Stallworth, Ryan Leaf and Plaxico Burress, there are the Brian Dawkins and Champ Baileys, but the negative stories never seem to go away.

Last year, Mike Tomlin was a featured speaker

" I often tell people there's no idiot's guide on how to be young, rich and famous. In fact, it is an experiment that is bound to go wrong to varying degrees, no matter how much effort is expended to prevent failure. And while some will point to the background of many of the players who step out of line, the truth is I know plenty of well-adjusted people that would make poor decisions if they were given millions of dollars and a boatload of notoriety at age 22. Though there may be no handbook on how to handle that situation, the seminar the NFL provides for these players, at great expense to the league, is really the next best thing."

All drafted rookies are required to attend the Symposium or be subject to a minimum $10,000 fine.

The CBA states:

Article V, Section 9. Rookie Symposium: Attendance at the annual Rookie Symposium shall be mandatory for all Rookies invited to the Symposium. A material failure to attend the entire Symposium (e.g., missing more than one presentation) that is unexcused by the NFLMC will result in a maximum fine of $50,000 for the 2006-09 League Years and $75,000 for the 2010-12 League Years. The NFLPA and the NFLMC shall each use its best efforts to encourage players to participate fully in all symposium activities and to abide by all symposium rules (e.g., dress code, curfew, etc.). Being late for or missing curfew will result in a fine at the then applicable amount under 14 Article V, Union Security Article VIII of the CBA. Other lateness for meetings or similar Article VIII violations will be disciplined at the applicable fine amounts. Discipline shall be imposed, if appropriate, by the NFLMC, not by any Club.

 Not since 2004 has a rookie been fined. That year, safety Sean Taylor, the first-round choice of the Washington Redskins, was docked $25,000 for an early departure.

 However
, there will be an extra player at the symposium this week. Vikings 2009 draft pick Percy Harvin left the event last year because of illness and will be in attendance this year, according to league spokesman Brian McCarthy. Harvin's illness was excused by the Commissioner after a doctor recommended him to leave the Symposium after the 1st day.

The players won't be allowed to leave the premises without permission. They cannot have guests or drink alcohol. In addition, cellphones and pagers, as well as do-rags, bandannas and sunglasses are banned from the proceedings. The League is working hard to breed the thug life out of any rookie so inclined. From 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., the players must sit through lectures about the pitfalls that await the unwary: paternity suits and domestic-abuse charges, bar fights and drug stings, crooked financial advisers and greedy hangers-on.

The NFL has made it a policy to assist rookies in learning how to handle their business. From finances to continuing education to substance abuse (particularly steroid policy and awareness) to sex education and the league's conduct policy. This symposium is a reminder of that and much more.

There is an emphasis on personal conduct. The 2007 group was reminded via video by commissioner Roger Goodell that their inclusion in the league is a privilege, not a right:

"There are only 256 of you, and there are more than 10 million males your age in America who would love to trade places with you. Everyone in the NFL must take part in the integrity of the NFL."

One of the key directives of Commissioner Goodell's new player conduct policy is that each franchise must continue the orientation of rookies with 10 to 12 hours of similar life-skills presentations before the start of training camp next month. Attendance is also mandatory for those sessions too.

 Many NFL teams also commit resources to educating the players. During the annual rookie symposium, well-known retired players are brought in to share their stories about misguided financial decisions that are meant to get the rookies’ attention. They also offer sage advice on how to avoid making the same mistakes of those before them.
 
Many of the rookie players that succeed can point to a watershed moment from the symposium.

 "I just remember hearing Cris Carter talk last year," said Denver Broncos wide receiver Eddie Royal, coming off a stellar rookie season. "He was so passionate about the game and his love of football, talking about how badly he wished he could still play. It made me realize how fortunate I was to have this opportunity and how critical it is that I make the most of it."

Harold Henderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of player programs, said the symposium is designed with two major goals in mind.

"One is to get ready for football, make the adjustment from college to the professional football level, help them make that transition," Henderson said. "And, two, the transition in their lives from being students with low income to professionals with high visibility personalities in the media all the time, with a lot of money in their pockets."

One thing for sure is that players will learn about basic life skills, money management, how to deal with fans and people who want a piece of you, and a variety of other subjects geared toward helping them be successful and understanding the responsibility that comes with representing "the shield."

Let's not forget MEDIA 101

Giants TE Jeremy Shockey:

"Dealing with the media takes away from your job. To think these guys are your friends is pretty stupid. They are just trying to sell a story. That is all they are worried about. I've come in here and seen how they work. You say one thing and they spread it out all over the place. They will take one word of your sentence and make a whole sentence up. So, I'll deal with it when I have to, but I'd just as soon not."

Former Bills offensive lineman Ross Tucker moderated a session at last year's Symposium about "Transitioning to the NFL." The panel included four players from the 2008 rookie class. St. Louis Rams DE Chris Long, New York Jets TE Dustin Keller, Denver Broncos WR Eddie Royal, and Atlanta Falcons WR Harry Douglas. All on the panel offered advice for the rookies about the longer NFL season compared to the college one, and the importance of training and resting properly for endurance.

 Here is a sample of what they shared with attendees at the 2009 Rookie Symposium.

 "A lot of people talk about that rookie wall that you hit but part of the reason I really didn't hit it was because of some of the things they taught in the symposium," said Keller, who caught 48 passes with the Jets as a rookie in 2008. "I knew what to expect. Considering that I just went through the process they're about to go through, I hope they can relate to what I have to say.

"It's a long year. You go right from college basically into training and then straight into the season. You really don't have any time off. Being able to share my experience with them hopefully can help make it that much easier for them."

They also were quick to admit their mistakes, which provided some of the best lessons of all. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas, who spent the final month before the start of his first NFL training camp on vacation, neglecting conditioning work related to football.

Douglas told the packed audience that some of the biggest transitions from college to the pros involve keeping hangers-on at a distance and being mindful of money. As an example, Douglas tugged at the gaudy earrings in each of his earlobes and told players that even though it looked like he was wearing major bling, he actually bought the faux jewelry at "Claire’s in the mall." He later confirmed that the earrings are fake diamonds, but because he plays in the NFL, people think they’re authentic.

Many rookies have already heard some of their veteran teammates in Minicamp tell them about many of these things. Then, to hear them again, it clicks. It's familiar. They need the repetition. It's how you learn.

Bears OT Chris Williams:

 "The whole time they're telling you, 'Stay away from this, be careful with your money, camp's tough, season's tough, everything's tough. But they're just trying to help us out as much as they can."

Defensive end Victor Abiamiri shared his experience from the Symposium in 2007.

"The biggest lesson I learned is that of being a professional. That has kind of been the theme of the last couple of days, as far as being a professional on the field and off the field. That includes how you conduct yourself with the media, as well as how you conduct yourself when nobody's watching. With our spot comes a lot of responsibility. We were taught that we're part of an organization and they expect us to act in a certain way, and hold us to a certain higher standard than a lot of other places.

People who have run or participated in the symposium for years said they have noticed the players who tend to succeed also were attentive and active participants. Players who routinely stress out their locker rooms and coaching staffs, get in trouble or have their careers end for non-football-related issues behaved like knuckleheads at the symposium.

Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack simplified things even more.

"People would love to be an NFL player. A lot of them, like me, strive to be an NFL player. What we do, people see. They take notice, so how we behave and carry ourselves matters a lot. I've heard it a lot: "Those guys make a lot of money. Why would they do such stupid things?"
"This is your job," Royal said. "Nothing else needs to be more important than football. Spending that extra time at the (team) facility shouldn't matter. You shouldn't have anything more important that you've got to get to than taking care of your body because your body is what's going to make you your money."

Rookies often find themselves in a position where, in order to make the final roster, they must perform better than veteran teammates. But that doesn't mean they can't seek the veteran's help and guidance.

As far as Royal is concerned, it's one of the most important steps a rookie can take on the road to success.

"You've got to reach out to these guys; you can't be shy," said Royal, who led all rookies and ranked seventh in the NFL with 91 catches for 980 yards and five touchdowns. "These guys are willing to help. They're your teammates and they want what's best for you and the team. Listen to the veterans. Talk to that guy. It's a long season, and you really need that guy to kind of help you get through it."

After attending the event in 2009 Knowshon Moreno had this to say:

"My advice for rookies is to learn and listen to the veterans because they're going to help you out. They've been through the situation you're going through. Keep your ears open for the things you can get better at."


There are also presentations along financial lines at the symposium. They detail a sample contract – say $1 million – and the deductions that come out of it: federal taxes, state taxes, city taxes, agent fees, family expenses, housing, food, clothing, etc. After presenting the group with $1M of earnings, the presentation will show that the player is left with roughly $200,000.

The only problem with the symposium is one the League can’t fix. The players who need to heed the advice the most usually don’t, and the ones who need to hear it the least take it to heart. One player came back and just shook his head, saying he felt like he was "in the ‘hood" the whole week.

Some of these players won’t be in the league in a couple of months; some will last a year or two, and a minority will play more than four or five years. Thus, the importance of listening intently to the financial presentations, although almost all of the rookies think they’re invincible at this age.

The star of the 2009 symposium was saved for the last day as future Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter talked openly and honestly about his 16 years as an NFL player including his early career struggles. If anyone knows about battling addiction and how it can ruin your career it is Carter. He was cut from the Philadelphia Eagles in 1989 because of his cocaine addiction and he credits from coach Buddy Ryan with turning his life around. He delivered a stern speech to the NFL Rookies on the last day of the Rookie Symposium. He said Pacman and Burress played the ‘It won’t happen to me" card. One player made the mistake of dozing off while Carter was speaking, and the player was awakened by a scolding he won’t forget. Carter pointed out to the audience — but also to the player — that if you don’t want to listen to people who know more than you and who can help you navigate through what lies ahead, then odds are you won’t be in the league for long because someone who does want to learn will take your job.

"I firmly believe that NFL players should be held to a higher standard," said St. Louis Rams second-year defensive end Chris Long, "and this event is one reason why."

Some will listen and others won't. Anyone remember Maurice Clarett?

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