Features

Major-league brats

National | Even in sports, sparing the rod spoils the star

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1999," Dec. 18, 1999

The tendency of many football and basketball scouts these days is to treat a player as a package of raw statistics: How fast can he run 40 yards? How many pounds can he bench press? What's his vertical leap? But other scouts look more at personal history. Did a talented player become used to coaches sparing the rod used on non-stars? If he was spoiled when young, does he continue to demand that coaches and others let him do whatever he wants? That seems to be the case with Lawrence Phillips, the former Nebraska football talent with a history of threatening and hitting women, for which he was convicted twice and subjected to multiple lawsuits. Mr. Phillips also spent 23 days in jail in 1996 for a drunken-driving charge while on probation. He has played for three NFL teams in four years. He wore out his welcome in St. Louis and Miami, but the San Francisco 49ers signed him to a two-year contract to be their feature running back. Coach Steve Mariucci discovered too late Mr. Phillips's inability (or unwillingness) to catch passes, block, or learn the offense. (His missed block on a blitz is partially blamed for a hit on two-time MVP quarterback Steve Young that resulted in a possible career-ending concussion.) Mr. Phillips's playing time has dwindled during the season, and so has his effort. Although he has managed to stay out of jail, the 49ers suspended him for insubordination. They finally gave up on him when he refused to perform pass-blocking drills and told coaches, "Why should I practice? You're not going to play me anyway." (Other kids learn when young that if they don't practice, they don't play.) Later, Mr. Phillips denied refusing to practice, but the team dumped him anyway. The situation is much worse for Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth, who may be out of the NFL for a long time. That's because he was jailed after allegedly arranging last month's drive-by shooting of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams. He posted $3 million bond, but the Panthers refused to allow him to rejoin the team. District attorney Gentry Caudill said at a bail hearing, "Rae Carruth was the instigator here" and "we are a heartbeat away from a double-murder case." Ms. Adams and her newborn son, delivered 10 weeks premature by emergency Caesarean section, remained in critical condition well into December. Hospital personnel and family members believe the baby is Mr. Carruth's son. The three other men with whom he allegedly conspired all are in custody. Police say the four suspects pulled alongside Ms. Adams's BMW in a quiet Charlotte neighborhood and fired multiple shots, striking her in the neck, chest, and abdomen. Mr. Carruth was the Panthers' first-round draft choice in 1997 and started for the team this season until he suffered an ankle injury. He was due to earn $652,000 for this year, but after his arrest the Panthers cut off his salary. Until the shooting Mr. Carruth's record was clean. The situation is more complicated with first-round NBA basketball pick Leon Smith, who joined the Dallas Mavericks but shortly after the season began overdosed on more than 250 aspirin. According to a police report, the 19-year-old was found passed out on the floor of his apartment wearing green war paint on his face. He told officers and paramedics that "he was an Indian and was fighting Columbus." Mr. Smith joined an NBA-sponsored aftercare program in Atlanta but left it. Then police in Illinois arrested him twice within a 24-hour period, first for threatening a former girlfriend while brandishing a blue-steel revolver. He then posted bond and went out to vandalize her mother's car. Last week, Mr. Smith entered a psychiatric facility in Texas. But a Chicago judge issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Smith, saying he had left Illinois illegally. Mr. Smith averaged 25 points and 14 rebounds as a high-school senior in Chicago last year, and was named Illinois Player of the Year. Even though he was without the college maturing he desperately needed, the Mavericks gave him a three-year contract for almost $500,000 per year. The Mavericks signed Mr. Smith out of high school because he tested out so well physically. But his mother was neglectful and she was declared an unfit parent; he was tossed into the foster home system at age 5, thus developing "major trust issues," according to former youth home worker Carl Bauer. "He doesn't really talk to anyone."

-Paul Chesser is a WORLD Journalism Institute student

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