With input from coaches and team player engagement directors, the NFL announced it is shifting the once centrally located Rookie Symposium to a new model where each of the 32 franchises holds it’s own Rookie Transition Program for ALL rookies - both drafted and undrafted.
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday, "Every team has it’s own set of values and culture. That’s one (reason for the change). Most important is we have an opportunity to capture 100% of all new members, of all new players, of all new employees, where before the focus has always been on the drafted, and 55% of (rookies on) your roster is made up of undrafted rookies the last five years."
Allowing each franchise to conduct it’s own program will foster franchise specific values, culture, and history. "They want a Steeler in front the new Steeler. And that exists in all 32 cities," Vincent said. "Now that you localized it, it gives the club the ability to bring in their legends, their hall of famers." The Saints can bring in any of their former players, legends, and hall of famers to mentor their own rookies. Each team is even afforded pre-approved "flex" topics to discuss. Darren Sharper Rape case or Bounty gate anyone?
But first, each team must tackle NFL mandatory subjects including social responsibility, respect at work, mental health, character and values, player engagement resources, working with the news media in the age of social media, financial education, and playing rule changes from college to the pros. I wrote that sentence that annoyingly long for a reason.
The Rookies Symposium has been for many years a place where some guys listen and some just won’t. You can fall asleep like Ryan Leaf or take pages of notes like Peyton Manning, but even if a rookie has the desire to learn, but lacks the formal education or maturity to properly digest the information dispersed, he will not reap the benefits this program is designed to introduce.
Hopefully the changes Vincent made this year will help shorten the learning gap between NFL Player Engagement and NFL Rookies, because no matter how much thought the league has put into this program so far, there have always been players who didn’t listen, or possibly more, didn’t understand.
A common presentation in years past on player health and safety included quotes from Rams team physician Dr. Matthew Matava like, "If you see a guy who may have a head injury, notify the medical staff. Let them know that the guy next to you is not himself," or "If you combine anti-inflammatories, you may lose blood through your gastrointestinal system resulting in anemia."
As Robert Klemko from MMQB at Sports Illustrated wrote in his fabulous article on the 2014 NFL Rookie Symposium, these statements elicited little more than "blank stares." I fear that much of the information at these programs, though extremely valuable, is simply not taught in ways that will actually make sense to most of these young athletes. What rookie would ever dream of "ratting on" another player by telling the trainer he thinks a player has a concussion? How many rookies understand what anti-inflammatory, gastrointestinal system, or anemia even means?
One great evolution of the program has been Vincent’s re-haul of the format which now includes peer to peer presentations from former players. In 2014, Cris Carter famously told draftees to make sure they have a "fall guy" when they get in trouble. This statement brought a lot of heat down on the symposium, but assuming not all advice is like this, rookies are certainly more likely to listen to guys who have been there before them. Localizing the program actually gives the Saints one of the most articulate minds to share with its’ rookies this year.
"Only a fool learns from his own mistakes," Donte Stallworth told them in 2014. "The wise man learns from the mistakes of others. Let me be your experience. Let me make the mistake. Learn it today from me, not on your own. You don’t want to think, every single day, that you were involved in ending someone’s life." Stallworth even shared his insight on phasing out the N-word on the field of play. "Bill Belichik won’t allow those words at all," he says. "The more you train yourself, the better off you’ll be."
I am totally guilty of calling him Donte "Street-clothes" while he was a Saint, but I would love a man like that to address our rookies this year. The Saints have many former greats who can hopefully serve as mentors for the incoming rookie class of 2016. Though not a Saint, one of my favorite running backs said it best about preparing these athletes for the pros. "It behooves you," Eddie George said, "to begin this journey with the end in mind."
The average NFL career is 3 years. Over 40% of the rookies who participate in this program will not be in the league by 2020. Finally, the NFL has realized that ALL rookies -drafted or undrafted- need help assimilating to the professional level of sport. Let’s hope that each franchise is capable of adequately educating these athletes on how to survive as a pro, let alone as a human being.