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The NFL must address gun awareness and conflict resolution among its young players

The league's player development process cannot afford to overlook the Will Smith tragedy.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

They will file past his casket one by one on Friday near New Orleans. For many, this up-close look at Will Smith will be their first and last one.

The narrative keeps percolating, oozing out of New Orleans about what happened last Saturday night when a traffic accident and road rage turned into Smith's death. We know that guns were involved. We know one was used to kill him.

"This is far beyond player development, far beyond player services," NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said. "This is a fundamental issue we have in our community. It goes far beyond the NFL. We have to start talking about solutions from a community standpoint."

We do.

But that alone does little to help educate, raise awareness and inspire the nearly 600 players soon to enter the NFL via the draft and rookie free agency. They need more direction about gun ownership responsibility and conflict resolution.

If Will Smith, who played nine NFL seasons with the New Orleans Saints, retired and yet at age 34 struggled with conflict resolution to such a degree that it might have contributed to his murder, how prepared are these future NFL players in this area? What is exactly the league's role to assist?

That is where NFL player development and player services fit. The need for this service has never been greater. There has never been a more important time for NFL teams to invest in their investment, to help grow men as much as player talents. If players are to be held accountable, they need every tool to reach accountability.

The onus is on players to receive and utilize the teaching.

The NFL mandate must be to give it full-throttle.

"Yes, we have to get to our players and use this as a teaching narrative about what happened here, could anything have been done differently and reinforce to them it could have been one of them on either side of this," Vincent said. "This is a tragic example of a lack of conflict resolution. And it happens in our community every single day. We will address this in a variety of ways with our players -- and then, ultimately, these same players, all of us, have to go back to our communities and lend that same voice."

* * *

I was with my two teen-age sons in New York City a couple of weeks ago. I was parking and backed into a parked, shiny, white BMW. It was a light tap. It left a light scratch on its fender.

I got out of the car and two very large men approached from a nearby store. It was their car. They were incensed. I apologized. I called the police. They were looking for a fight. I apologized. I got back into the car with my sons and waited for the police. They came. An incident report was filed. I apologized.

This incident could have escalated into something like Smith's. I was lucky and blessed. But I also did everything I could to defuse the situation.

When I heard of the Smith tragedy, I thought of my incident. I thought of conflict resolution. I wondered what might have happened if guns were involved.

"It is amazing with young men how a gun helps empower them," said Jerry Butler, the Chicago Bears director of player development. "It's not that guns are a bad thing. They are a citizen's right. But for some of our youth, it gives them a sense of empowerment. Maybe you say some words a little more freely because you feel you can back it up with the gun. For the NFL player, the question has to be do you understand that when you own a gun you must have an elevated sense of responsibility? That when you have situations arise with others that their guns can come into play?"

Butler worked in player development for the Buffalo Bills in November 2007 when Washington safety Sean Taylor was shot and murdered during an invasion of his home.

"After that tragedy, I saw a significant rise in NFL players with guns," Butler said. "There has been a continual uptick since. The guys feel they are targets. They feel their lifestyle is a target."

Actually, guns and NFL players were a hot issue well before Taylor's murder. It was agent Michael Huyghue who eloquently told me in a 2003 interview about the increasing number of NFL players he was encountering who owned guns.

Huyghue said in 2003: "The reality is that the mind-set of today's athletes in general is that gun possession is part of their macho attitude. It is as basic to them as owning jewelry or fast cars. They have almost becomes tools of their trade. And every profession has something that people in it identify with, just like the lawyer that must have his $600 briefcase or $1,000 cuff links. But the difference is the briefcase or cuff links won't kill you."

Directors of NFL player development for each NFL team work with players on social network responsibilities, respect in the workplace, post-career development, financial management and a host of other topics.

The Smith tragedy pushes roadside protocol, conflict resolution and gun awareness to the forefront.

* * *

In recent years, the NFL has conducted a rookie symposium where it brings all drafted rookies to a central location and offers speeches, video and seminars on a wide-range of player development topics. This year the NFL has replaced the league event with club-managed ones at each team's site.

Vincent said that research showed that of the nearly 600 draftees and free agents who annually enter the league, 45 percent are drafted and 55 percent are not. The league symposium was not including that 55 percent.

"So, by moving it to the team sites, we have enhanced it," Vincent said. "Now we are reaching 100 percent and not just the 45 percent. It's local now. And the first-line of resources for players has always been local. We all have to keep in mind that the NFL has a role to play in this development and so does the player's association (NFLPA). We are working together."

The teaching begins in each team's early stages of camps soon after the draft. The symposium-like instruction at team sites is June 20-22 for NFC teams and June 22-24 for AFC teams.

Butler said the Bears rookies will use role play to act out various situations to help them understand "choices, decisions and consequences." He said law enforcement officials will make presentations to the players. He said that he and all of the player development team directors in the NFL realize the Will Smith tragedy cannot be ignored.

"When I first heard of this tragedy, I immediately put pen to paper to see how I could do a better job for our athletes and use this to help them," Butler said. "We must engage them in the learning process. They need trust and truth. We have evolved in this area. We are evolving."