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Carolina Panthers, other NFL teams delve deeper into player backgrounds

Hernandez case has NFL more on alert

SPARTANBURG Captain Munnerlyn still remembers the questions teams lobbed at him during his pre-draft interviews in 2009.

“When your brother gets out, where is he going to stay? When he gets out, are you going to give him this amount of money to do this or that?” the Panthers cornerback recalled.

His brother, Timothy, was charged with murder when Munnerlyn was in second grade. He had been in prison for more than a decade serving a life sentence when Munnerlyn was prepping for the draft, and teams wanted to make sure they knew the person they could make a big investment in.

On the heels of one of the more tempestuous NFL offseason following New England tight end Aaron Hernandez’ murder charge, the league has reportedly been looking at ways to more efficiently evaluate a player’s character before taking a chance on him in the draft.

That means tougher, more personal questions at the combine and pre-draft interviews, deeper background checks and potentially a tattoo expert to review prospects’ ink for warning signs.

The Panthers stayed away from those types of headlines this year. Coach Ron Rivera said no player was arrested this offseason. But across the league, 33 players have been arrested since the Feb. 3 Super Bowl, according to data compiled by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

It’s led to a debate about whether the NFL has an image problem. And over the past few years, the league has implemented more precautionary measures early in the process in an effort to avoid future entanglements.

“They get personal. That’s something they do,” Munnerlyn said. “They invest all this money in you, they want to know. I don’t blame them. I’d want to know too if I was about to invest millions of dollars in someone.”

Getting personal

When free safety Charles Godfrey went through the draft process in 2008, he got hardly any personal questions.

Teams seemed more interested in how he read offenses, going over his college film rather than pelting him with questions on his life off the field.

“A lot of the meetings at the combine didn’t ask about me the person,” Godfrey said. “They didn’t ask about my family. I think they already had that information.”

Rookie linebacker A.J. Klein didn’t have that same experience this spring.

“They will ask about your family, background, where you grew up, places you worked,” Klein said. “It’s extensive to that point where it gets into your personal life because they’re making a big investment in whoever they go after. But for me it wasn’t a big deal.”

Klein says he lived quietly in northeast Wisconsin before going to college at Iowa State in Ames, Iowa.

“I kept my nose clean and did things the right way and that’s what I take pride in. So when it came to teams asking about me personally, I had no problem talking to them about my past experiences or anything like that. but it does get pretty intense.

“And for the guys, all of us rookies, that whole entire time was very stressful. I don’t think one person in that whole process had a clear mind, because I know I didn’t.”

When the Panthers took defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick in April, Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman extolled the virtues of the 23-year-old rookie who was already married with kids. They ranked Lotulelei at the top of their board for defensive tackles because his performance at Utah, but his character traits were mentioned just as prominently as his run-stuffing abilities.

“We were very confident in who he is, and who he is as a football player,” Rivera said shortly after the Panthers drafted Lotulelei. “We had actually sent (defensive line coach) Eric Washington, (director of pro scouting) Mark Koncz and (director of college scouting) Don Gregory out and they visited with him and they spent a lot of time with him, got to really know him.

“Those guys did a very thorough background check on him in terms of getting to know who he is, understand what he knows about the game.”

Rivera said Saturday he wants to know as much as he can about a prospect before drafting him. Speaking only from his three-year experience with the Panthers, Rivera said the team will do extensive background checks only on the players on Carolina’s board.

“(Retired former director of security) Gene Brown did a great job for us gathering the information on the guys we like specifically, and that’ll be passed on to (director of security) Lance Emory,” Rivera said. “We identify the guys who are on our board, those are the guys that we have our background checks on. And that’s the way we do.”

Image at stake

According to the Washington Post, roughly 2-3 percent of all NFL players get arrested per year. By comparison, the national arrest rate for men ages 22-34 is 10.8 percent, according to FBI crime data from 2009 cited in the Post article.

The most notable arrest this offseason has been Hernandez, who’s charged with killing Odin Lloyd, a semi-pro football player who was once an acquaintance of Hernandez.

No matter the statistics, the league is in the midst of an image controversy, and it doesn’t just stop at arrests.

Just like dreadlocks were the image discussion fodder in the league in the 2000s, tattoos have become the hot topic lately. Much was made last season of Colin Kaepernick’s heavily tattooed arms by some columnists and analysts who said such body decoration is unbecoming of a franchise quarterback.

When Panthers owner Jerry Richardson found out Cam Newton did not have any tattoos or piercings in 2011 pre-draft interviews, Richardson said he told Newton to “keep it that way.”

Hernandez’ tattoos have come into the discussion since his arrest due to having a red “Blood” tattoo on his right hand. It is still unclear if Hernandez has any gang ties.

According to a CBSSports.com report, in the wake of the Hernandez case, teams may begin using a police expert to examine prospects’ tattoos before the draft.

Munnerlyn is covered in ink. When he was at South Carolina, he hid his tattoos from his mother, who is a minister, by having them only on his chest, back and upper arms. He had a tattoo of her face on his left bicep for a year before she found out.

Once Munnerlyn was in the NFL, he began adding to his collection along his arms and legs.

“Sometimes I wish I never got all these tattoos because of how people look at you when you got them,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s like you’re this wild man.”

‘No New Friends’

Few in the Panthers organization want to talk specifically on the Hernandez situation. Newton, a former teammate of Hernandez’ at the University of Florida, has declined to comment on it.

“I saw it, really didn’t pay too much attention to it,” Godfrey said, referring to all the offseason arrests. “As long as the Carolina Panthers were out of it, I didn’t put too much thought into it.”

The news made Munnerlyn take a step back. He says he became a better person because of his brother’s arrest, and he reflected similarly to this offseason’s arrests.

He made sure he knew who he was in a car with and kept closer tabs on his friends.

Munnerlyn referenced a popular hip-hop song “No New Friends.”

“I’ve been hanging with the same friends since fifth and sixth grade,” Munnerlyn said. “My only new friends are on my team. I’ve just been looking around and making sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do and not bringing any foolishness around me. Or making sure they’re not doing anything crazy that can harm me or my family or my teammates.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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