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Commentary: Pro athletes must leave their pasts behind

  • Story Highlights
  • Michael Vick isn't the only rich athlete to face legal troubles
  • Pro athletes must lose their bad-boy ways, columnists says
  • Pro leagues try to warn incoming rookies to shed their pasts
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Roland S. Martin
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: Roland S. Martin is a CNN contributor and a talk-show host for WVON-AM in Chicago.

(CNN) -- There is no denying the athletic abilities of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.


Roland Martin: Pro athletes need to lose their bad-boy ways and bad-boy friends, or risk losing contracts.

When he steps onto the field, he can literally transform the game with his lighting-fast feet, or his ability to toss the ball 60 yards in the air. His No. 7 jersey has been at the top of the league merchandise chart since he entered the NFL, and the video games featuring his dazzling skills sell out each year.

But like many other pro athletes, the fact that they rack up millions of dollars a year from their athletic contracts, marketing deals and appearance fees is no guarantee that they will learn to shed their old ways.

The federal indictment, in which Vick is charged, details detestable, cruel and downright nasty actions. He is no doubt innocent until proven guilty, but the mere fact that he's associated with the illegal activity has enough people writing him off and demanding that he be kicked out of the NFL.

Instead of preparing for a new season under offensive guru Bobby Petrino, Vick is forced to think of some serious jail time if convicted.

But he isn't the lone rich athlete who spends more time being discussed by legal analysts than sportscasters.

Adam "Pacman" Jones might as well be the host of the long-running show "Cops" based on the number of times he has walked in and out of police stations. Although Jones hasn't been convicted of a crime, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended the Tennessee Titans cornerback for a year because of his conduct off the field.

Another guy who was told to walk the straight and narrow, but failed, was Chicago Bears lineman Tank Johnson. After spending a couple of months in jail on a probation violation for a gun charge, cops in Arizona pulled him over for DUI. The charges were later tossed, but the damage was done: The Bears severed ties with the man they had stood by when he had to ask a judge to suspend his home confinement while facing gun possession charges to go to the Super Bowl in Miami.

Casual observers are quick to suggest that these are nothing more than spoiled, rich athletes who revel in the bad-boy side. What they don't understand is most of them were either bad boys growing up, or they now choose to associate themselves with bad boys who don't care about their big contracts and grown-up responsibilities. Their only focus is to party like a rock star.

It would be wrong to suggest that grown men can't make their own decisions, but the fact is the company you keep plays a role in keeping your business private, or seeing it spread on the front page.

Denver Nuggets guard Allen Iverson can preach on this subject for days.

When he was in his first couple of years in the league, Iverson was running hard with his "crew," a collection of guys who he grew up with. He told reporters that they often discussed taking care of each other, so when he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers, they traveled with him to the City of Brotherly Love.

But instead of truly loving him like a brother and protecting his back, they made his life even more difficult. The team, and subsequently the NBA, got tired of the arrests and police interrogations, and told Iverson to cut his ties with his past or lose the gravy train he was riding on.

He got the message and changed.

That's really what the problem is for guys like Vick, Jones and so many others. Many grew up poor, and it was their athletic talent that kept them from falling victim to the streets.

See, the money is irrelevant here. What they are most afraid of is losing the support system -- no matter how detrimental -- and then being branded a traitor for turning their back on the guys who were there when they had nothing.

You don't have to admit it, but that's a serious guilt trip that can eat some folks alive.

The pro leagues try their best to warn incoming rookies to shed their pasts, and the message never seems to get through. Now is the time to listen. No matter how much talent you have, teams are not going to carry guys who fail drug tests, keep getting arrested outside of strip clubs or, in the case of Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, save a spot upon your release from federal prison for helping a friend sell cocaine.

Everyone is tired of their acts. Now it's time for them to decide whether saying no to their "friends" is worth losing everything they worked so hard to get.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the writer. This is part of an occasional series of commentaries on that offers a broad range of perspectives, thoughts and points of view. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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