Fixing the NFL rookie symposium

Workshop designed to prep drafted players for life in the pros

Back in the summer of 2000, I, and roughly 300 other NFL rookies, were instructed to put condoms on bananas. That's right, the NFL wanted to teach us how to properly use a prophylactic.

Some guys didn't even do it, while others held up the finished product, proudly displaying it like a trophy.

The league was treating us like high school kids and we weren't falling for it. It was just one of the many exercises we took part in at the NFL's rookie symposium in California, a four-day workshop designed to prep drafted players for life in the pros.

There were large group sessions on finances, proper behavior in public and lessons from former players. Most of the rookies were fighting to stay awake, counting the days until they went home.

The league used scare tactics, role-play sessions and even marched two beautiful women up on stage who revealed they were HIV positive.

I thought it was a bust.

What has the league done to structure this year's symposium, underway in Aurora, Ohio, to meet the needs of today's player? Plenty, according to Troy Vincent, the NFL's vice president of player engagement.

The former five-time Pro Bowl cornerback is leading the conference this week and is stressing a new format.

"We divided the participation level in half," said Vincent. "Three hundred kids in the room with the air conditioning on? It doesn't work. It's not a learning environment.

"I'm now dealing with less than 140 per session. Now when I get them into those breakout sessions, I'm dealing with 20-25 guys."

The players' attendance is now divided by conference (NFC: Sunday-Wednesday, AFC: Wednesday-Saturday) and will focus on four main areas of education: NFL history, experience, player expectations, professional and social responsibility.

But how do you draw (and maintain) the attention of close to 300 players, many of whom come to the symposium carrying a sense of arrogance and entitlement?

Former Packers and Jaguars defensive end Aaron Kampman says it is all about attitude.

"As a young player, I thought (the symposium) was great. But the attitude of the player has to be right. Personally, the best way I have found to get through to a player is to show him that you genuinely care. You can't fake it."

The symposium will again feature multiple speakers this week. Adam "Pacman" Jones, Terrell Owens, Hardy Nickerson, LaVar Arrington, Michael Vick and others will share their stories.

"Adam has a story I don't have," Vincent said. "I'm also bringing success stories. We are trying to cover the whole 360-degree environment of the National Football League.

"This is no longer a three-day orientation of what not to do. Absolutely not. We are going to talk about this NFL experience. Adam brings a testimony. Michael Irvin brings a testimony. Aeneas Williams, Hardy Nickerson, Ross Tucker. We have a variation of different people from different walks of life."

Vincent remains sold the new format will indeed cater to the rookies that want to get the most of the symposium.

"Keep the game plan simple, coach and let's just play," said Vincent. "Don't give them a whole lot. Give them what they need to be productive professionals."

But is it enough to make a difference, keep players out of trouble off the field and actually teach them how to be pros in just four days?

"I want to hold them all accountable," said Vincent. "The days are over when you're going to say a kid 'did not know.' ...This stuff is in your face. No such thing as 'I didn't know.' Nope, you choose not to."

Special contributor Matt Bowen, who played at Glenbard West and Iowa, spent seven seasons in the NFL as a strong safety. You also can find his work at nationalfootballpost.com.
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