Bad Boys in the NFL – Who Succeeds at Making a Comeback?

by Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of Sport Psychologists and Loren Fogelman, MEd,  EFT-ADV, Sport Performance Consultant


-When Gifted Athletes Fall from Grace-

“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all”

– Dale Carnegie

What happens when football players behave badly?  Our favorite American sport, football, is experiencing a crisis not limited to the NFL’s Lockout. The past several weeks have been riddled with a number of talented football players being suspended, dropped from rosters, and some even charged with violent crimes.

Bad behavior on the field results in heavy fines, while transgressions off the field might be even more costly.  In either case, behavior outside the lines is a gamble.  The tangible consequence equals millions of dollars when a player’s stock drops. Court appearances, jail time, probation, suspensions for violating the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy all tarnish the image of the NFL  It is no wonder Commissioner Roger Goodell has taken a stronger stance on this issue than his predecessors, Paul Tagliabue and Pete Rozell.  Back then, the NFL hardly worried about the criminal element and it was rare when an athlete donned the “I don’t care about being a role-model” attitude.

Could it be that an extended NFL lockout, and the lack of strict pre-season training regimens could be the tipping point for less self-directed athletes?  As of this date at least ten players have been arrested since the announcement of the lockout, three times the number in a normal year.  John Mitchell’s piece “Is the lockout leading NFL players to a life of crime” paints a disconcerting picture of the situation.

One might say, good sportsmanship is never out-of-style.  Fans love a quality person and will cheer them, buy their jerseys and support their every venture (just ask Tim Tebow.) Although the purpose of this article doesn’t focus on it, there is no doubt that off field infractions affect the player’s performance too.  Podium Sports Journal has been concerned with this trend and recently featured an Open Letter to the NFL Draftee’s penned by Wesley Mallette. Of course an ounce of prevention and all that – But – what about those who DO fall from grace?  HOW can they redeem themselves?  CAN they redeem themselves?  Let’s take a look.

The Price is Steep

It should be noted that by the time an athlete’s problems get the attention of the press, the damage has already been done. The athlete, and their team, are required to take a defensive stance.  This is similar to looking at the tip of the iceberg. You are only seeing 10% of the problem not realizing the other 90% is under the surface.  Aside from the costs incurred by the athlete’s and their agents themselves (lawyers, PR specialists, publicists, time delays, lost training time, personal & family stress and anxiety) the teams and the league are forced to incur expenses as well.  Investigators, more attorneys, spin doctors, and record keeping specialists are just a few of those added costs when employees in this job get into trouble.

Nobody is likely to suffer more than the athlete themselves.  Consider the player’s perceived value upon entering the league.  Mike Florio of NBC Sports believes this year’s NFL draft is perhaps the most talented quarterback crop since 1983 when Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Tod Blackridge and Ken O’Brien were all taken in the 1st round.  Consider one such player amongst Florio’s chosen ones, Ryan Mallett.

Ryan Mallett -  Arkansas Razorbacks

Ryan Mallett, was touted as perhaps the best of the group yet his stock plummeted in the draft and he ended up being taken in the 3rd round by the Patriots.  Even this move is believed by many to be a huge gamble for the Pats. Why? While a junior quarterback with Arkansas, Mallett was arrested for public intoxication and use of marijuana. Whether his past behavior is a forecast for future transgressions or not remains to be seen.  But many believed Mallett was the best prototypical NFL QB in the draft – with a rifle arm, quick release, and at 6 ft. 7 inches tall, has the ability to see the entire field.  Mallett’s bad behavior is likely the cause of his drop in the draft to the third round, and it will likely have cost him well over a million dollars once contracts are in place.

High-roller-for-now, Albert Haynesworth, defensive tackle for the Washington Redskins, is once again in the court system most recently for a charge of sexual abuse.  This accusation comes on the heels of a prior court appearance just a few months ago for assaulting a motorist. If the judge is not a Redskins fan and wants to make an example of him, Haynesworth could face a stiff sentence.  Denver Bronco cornerback Perrish Cox has pleaded not guilty, but he could face a life sentence if convicted of sexual assault.  Buccaneer’s cornerback Aqib Talib was recently arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and in a recent article in Sporting News, is reported to be all-but-gone from Tampa.  What the team or the league will do going remains to be seen.  At this point, no action can be taken until the lockout is resolved.

The majority of NFL arrests revolve around weapons and drug charges. Although the NFL has a Personal Conduct Policy which governs each player, each team has the ability to decide whether or not to address the charges on their own. The line is blurred as to whether behavior off the field is likely to be addressed by the team.  Each of these athletes has put his sports career at risk in an act of Self-Sabotage. These men still have a chance to turn things around. Their raw athletic talent is a gift. Success, however, is not that simple. Staying the course becomes treacherous when full commitment to the vision is lacking.  It is also true that many of these individual’s have social influences that are likely to contribute to their problems…aka their posse.  Sometimes old friends, sometimes new acquaintances who represent “cool” may be inclined to influence poorly.

Righting the Ship

The discrepancy surfaces when the demands of professional sports clash with the athlete’s perceived reality. Each of these men, as well as many athletes in similar situations before them, had a missing link.  They were able to grab the brass ring, but not able to hold onto it. The opportunity slipped through their fingers. With the correct fortitude, however, they may be able to move forward, learn from the past and turn things around.  Although the ring slipped through their fingers once, it does not mean all is lost.

Whether Talib, Haynesworth, Cox and Mallett fall short of their dreams, following the path of former NFL players who were unable to change, is unknown. Cognitive dissonance contributes to each of these athletes’ challenges. Their reality has clashed with their team’s expectations, their league’s conduct policy, and the sentiments of many of the games fans, even the laws of their current residence.  There is no doubt their life has tension.  The disparity of their backgrounds, being forced to move at a young age, making a home in unfamiliar environment is bound to cause a huge amount of tension. Eventually their tension must be relieved, somehow some way.  Psych 101 will tell you when people are under a lot of pressure they revert back to old behaviors, both on and off the field.  The penalties when young are hardly what an adult knows to be true.  But many of these athletes are just kids…in really big bodies with loads of cash to spread around.  If self-discipline was not part of the regimen they grew up with – they may have but one chance to learn it NOW.  That familiar pattern of early morning partying to blow off steam has led to many a DUI or worse.

What must occur?

Why is righting the ship so difficult?  It is because many of these athletes have backgrounds, influences and history that work at cross purposes with the required changes they must make.  There are three key aspects to be concerned with.

1.  Personal Beliefs and Values Don’t Fit in their New World

Every one of these athletes has a conflict between playing goals and how they want to operate within their personal beliefs or values. When these beliefs or values contradict a goal it leads to sabotage. Sometimes those beliefs remain under the surface, hidden from the individual, leading to a vicious cycle of repeated problems. Albert Einstein once defined that as insanity…”Doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome.”

2. Athletes don’t like being in Situations they Do not Control.

Football is a contact sport.  It is mano-a-mano personal combat of sorts.  Athletes are used to being in Control.  Others shy away from them and will likely not press an issue should they feel intimidated (which is likely.)  Hence, control issues get in the way. Most likely they do not believe they need to change anything. Hence, they need a dose of Reality Testing.  The assistance and resources are available to them through the NFL’s and team’s resources – and –  rookie training program. Their ego, however, may prevent them from taking advantage of the support. Their posse might think it lame. For those who know better, they will gladly share how performance success and personal growth are intertwined. They go hand in hand.

3. Blaming Others is the “American” Way – Right?

When athletes are unwilling to take personal responsibility, they can and will find dozens of ways it was somebody else’s fault. The stance they adopted growing up did not apply to their current reality. At some point, it becomes necessary to stop pointing fingers and throwing blame around.  The lessons of being accountable for our own actions are rarely pretty.  Don’t forget we live in a litigious society (think of the woman who sued McDonald’s for a million dollars because their coffee was too hot).  Mentors who can help teach these lessons are critical and every team, should have several.  The man who fails to learn the lessons of personal responsibility will fail to become a man worth following, much less a father worth honoring.

4.  Image is Everything – Right?

It is impossible to be successful if you are unwilling to modify your self-image.  Eventually old beliefs need to be shed to avoid sabotage.  Football affords a nice lifestyle. Athletes displaying entitlement, taking their positions for granted, are likely to have short-lived careers because their self-image is unable to transcend the trappings. Players unwilling to adapt will hit a wall in their career. When an athlete’s beliefs and image affect their vision then something needs to change. There are basically two choices, rise up to the challenge and change your attitude or risk not having your contract renewed because you are seen as a risk and you’ve become a PR liability for your team.

Embracing Change – Easier Said than Done

Each of these gifted athletes knew where they were, and they possessed a vision of where they wanted to be in preparing for their NFL journey. They did what they needed to do to achieve their current level of success.  Will they continue to develop?  Will they reach their potential?  Some athletes in similar situations learned hard lessons, became receptive to shifting their focus and their behavior – they did whatever it took to bridge the gap between their past and their potential future.  They were committed.  Many of those players have been studied by Coach Chrissy Carew’s.  These role models she’s featured in Insightful Players.

As Jack Kerouac once said in On the Road (1957) “I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.” Are Talib, Haynesworth, Cox and Mallett committed – or only interested?

Rising to professional status demands change. There is no room for drugs, anger issues or theft among elite athletes. These men, however, may be unable to adapt to changing demands as they climb up the ladder of success.  Playing as a professional without changing who you are for what you need to become is a dangerous combination. It is like a business growing too fast without the infrastructure in place, eventually it implodes and collapses. Change occurs when the pain of remaining the same becomes greater than the perceived pain of initiating changing.

You must learn to Stretch

Every athlete trains to enhance their physical capabilities.  They all want to improve their rankings amongst others at their position, for that is how they can earn the big bucks.  However, one’s sense of self must adjust as well…for professional growth and personal identity are intertwined.  Just as an athlete learns to adapt to different playing conditions, their self-identity must adapt as well.

What might this kind of adjustment look like…”I used to do things that put me at risk, but now I’m more mature and focused on my goals for the future.”  If one is committed, statements like these become part of their vocabulary – and they are speaking to themselves as well as the person(s) they converse with.

Change is necessary to sustain success. The process of being stretched beyond your comfort zone, and continuing to take steps toward your vision, are necessary components for success.  Resisting change is resisting success.

Success is multi-layered and people experience it by persisting through all kinds of trials and tribulations. For many people it requires a rude awakening.  They must lose something precious.  It is not easy to look in the mirror and see the truth…yet…a deep desire to never experience a similar situation again can be an ideal motivator for change.  If these athletes can reach that point, and many do not, Talib, Haynesworth, Cox and Mallett will commit to their vision and not only do what is convenient but what is necessary to succeed. They know how to do it on the field and that driving force is transferable.  It’s possible once they make the commitment.

There are great leaders in the NFL, fabulous personalities who are All-pro not just in their performances on the field – but in how they address the challenges in life.  Coach Chrissy Carew has put together a marvelous collection of athletes who demonstrated the necessary commitment – to be successful both on and off the field.  Check out the website and look forward to her soon-to-be-released book on these fabulous role models in Insightful Players.

Maintaining worth within the NFL, displaying value to a team, is more than just assessing how the coaches graded your performance on Sunday.  Personal growth and maturity is necessary to sustain success as a professional player. At some point a team will cut it’s losses for self-preservation.  We will soon see how these four players mentioned above make their comeback – or not.  We will see how their teams and their fans favor their contributions going forward.  Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

About the Authors:






Dr. Stephen Walker is the Editor-in-Chief of Podium Sports Journal and is in private practice in Boulder, Colorado working with both professional and amateur athletes on the best practices in applied sport psychology and mental conditioning for peak performance.

Loren Fogelman, M.Ed, EFT-Adv
Creator of The Inner Game for Winning Athletes System™
Peak Performance Consultant, Speaker and Trainer
Transforming Acceptable Performance into Exceptional Results.



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