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NFL Shoots Back On Crime Stats

After a week of questions about Ray Lewis' legal problems, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue defended the character of NFL players, saying most were law-abiding and that he had the numbers to prove it.

Asked about a radio report that 21 percent of the league's players have criminal records, Tagliabue took the offensive as he was wrapping up his state of the NFL news conference Friday at the Super Bowl.

"I do know that most statements that have been made about criminal records in the NFL have been nonsensical and stupid," Tagliabue said. "Including the so-called statistical statements.

"What I do know for a fact is that we track 2,500 players that go to training camp every year, plus every other player who has been with the league in the preceding 18 months. We track 3,000 to 4,000 players every year in terms of criminal misconduct.

"And this year, tracking almost 4,000 players, we have had 26 investigations - not offenses, investigations - and we've had 11 convictions. And most of those convictions, putting aside the Rae Carruth case, were minor offenses.

"If the rest of society can do as well as we do in the NFL, America's crime problem would be well addressed."

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Questions about character followed a week in which the Baltimore Ravens' Lewis was the center of attention.

Lewis, the NFL defensive player of the year, was charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men outside a nightclub after last year's Super Bowl in Atlanta. The charges eventually were dropped and Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

But the Lewis case is just one of several involving high-profile NFL players.

Former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth was convicted last week of conspiracy to commit murder and two related charges in the shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend. He was sentenced to at least 18 years and 11 months in prison.

And former Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura is currently on trial for sexual assault.

Tagliabue was asked several times about Lewis, who received probation and was fined $250,000 by the league. He said the fine, which would double if Lewis violates his probation, was meant to warn other players to stay out of trouble. He said it didn't go as far as a suspension because of what Lewis already had been through.

The commissioner also was asked if he thought Lewis was forthcoming enough in his responses this week to questions about the case.

"He's here to play a game," Tagliabue said. "He might not have been as articulate as he might have been in answering the questions, but that's done with now."

Afterward, Tagliabue was asked about Baltimore coach Brian Billick chastising the press about its coverage of Lewis just hours after landing on Monday.

"He was in a difficult position," Tagliabue said. "He had to get his team ready for the game. But he knew this question would come up. I think Ray Lewis knows the seriousness of what happened."

On other matters:

Tagliabue said he hopes the hiring of Herman Edwards to coach the New York Jets and the likely hiring by Buffalo or Cleveland of Marvin Lewis, Baltimore's defensive coordinator, after the Super Bowl will start a trend for minority candidates. Edwards was the first black coach selected in the last 42 coaching changes.

"All of the networking we've been trying to do among coaches and owners is beginning to have a positive steps," he said. "There's no guarantee it will continue, but we want to ensure that the scales aren't tipped against minorities during the hiring process.

He noted that he has reinstated Edward DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, who was suspended for a year after pleading guilty to a felony in a case involving a Louisiana gambling license. But he also said rumors that DeBartolo was trying to buy the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were false. "I know for a fact that the Bucs are not for sale," Tagliabue said.

He said the NFL has little oncern about the debut of the XFL the week after Sunday's Super Bowl. "It's basically a non-issue. It's not what we worry about," Tagliabue said.

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