Police put on a show to educate HS athletes

Dec 22 2009 - 7:33pm

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In a town where football players are treated like Hollywood stars, police are holding their own workshops with the actors.

Before they hit bigger stages.

Officers in Columbus, home of the lionized Ohio State Buckeyes, are visiting high schools to teach the next generation of gridiron greats that they are not invincible. Re-enacting scenarios gleaned from the streets, they share tips on how athletes should conduct themselves during encounters with the law.

The basic theme? Don't believe your social status entitles you to a free pass no matter what you do -- or your friends do.

"If you are a football player, why are you riding around with a guy with a bag of weed in his pocket and no driver's license?" asked Lt. Donald Cade, who helped develop the program last summer.

In high school, athletes are the ones who get the girls, the popularity, the near-royalty status in the cafeteria line. That's why they're also most likely to think they're above the law, police say.

An inflated self-image can lead to downfall on an epic scale, as any fan of professional sports can attest. If a Buckeyes football player commits even a minor offense, it's big news in Columbus. These officers want to reach out to prep athletes now -- "before anything is at stake," Cade says -- to prepare them for the pressures to come.

They know the world of which they speak. Officer Tony Lowery, who coaches high school football, was a quarterback at the University of Wisconsin nearly 20 years ago. He sees glimmers of the "I'm-a-celebrity" attitude in his own players.

"They don't ask for it," he said. "They just get it."

Some of the tips are obvious, yet worth emphasizing to young drivers, police say:

-- When you see flashing red lights in your rearview mirror, pull over right away.

-- Getting pulled over doesn't mean you're going to jail.

-- It's OK to be nervous.

"You know what, fellas? I'm almost 40 years old," Lowery said to a roomful of football players. "When I get pulled over, I'm nervous."

The first performance debuted at Walnut Ridge High School in late June. The football coach, Byron Mattox, said he recognizes his players are under a bigger microscope than "the average Joe."

"For the most part I got really good guys," Mattox said. "But you don't want them to make that little mistake -- that one-time mistake that can cost them for the rest of their life."

The most common blunder, police say, is provoking a confrontation with an officer. The scenario played out on stage as two officers on bicycles approached a group of teenagers standing on a street corner. While two of them followed the officers' orders and dropped to the ground immediately, one teen had to be restrained and was arrested for obstructing official conduct.

"You are going to have interactions with police," Sgt. Jim Gilbert said. "There's no way around it. You're going to be in the wrong place at the wrong me."

The importance of cooperation was a recurring motif throughout the program. The next scene -- a traffic stop -- wrought a long list of do's and don'ts.

Do pull over. Don't leave your ignition running. Don't mouth off. And while it's fine to tell the officer that you're nervous, try not to be jumpy.

"Let's keep it real," Lowery told the players. "The sudden movements? Don't do that. That makes us nervous."

Afterward, 15-year-old Devon Bingham said the scenarios reminded him of confrontations he had witnessed in his neighborhood, but had not been entangled in himself.

"I'm going to be a new driver," he said.

For Gilbert, head of the police union, the seminars also offer a chance to build relationships with local youngsters. As in many cities across the U.S., Columbus police are forever struggling to win the allegiances of inner-city youths, who can be vital sources of information during crime investigations.

"It's a perception issue that we're trying to correct," Gilbert said. "We are the good guys."

Throughout the summer and autumn, the show has garnered praise from schools and city officials. More performances are in the works, and police are expanding audiences to include non-athletes.

"I can't find fault with a program that tries to create a dialogue between high school athletes and police," said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "But it's about how that dialogue is created -- and how open both sides are to hearing it."

Lebowitz, who has not heard of similar efforts elsewhere, cautioned that police should teach the athletes in a way that's not condescending.

"Conflict can get escalated on both sides of the equation," he said.

The first show closed with a speech that was part metaphor, part challenge.

"The world is made up of three categories of people. You're either a sheep, a wolf, or a guard dog," Detective Larry Wilson declared. "It's funny how one guard dog can make three wolves run."

He paused and looked out at the young faces in the crowd.

"The fact that you're playing football right now tells me that you're probably not a sheep. So which one are you?" he asked. "You can't be both."


From Around the Web