Photo courtesy of Flickr, under creative commons license

Spring is a great time for sports fans. The NBA is building to its ultimate culmination. Baseball has begun and every team has the hope of a World Series title in their sights. Even football, in the middle of its offseason, provides hope. The NFL Draft is now a major event where every fan feels like its team just got better. The NFL Draft brings additional sporting hope to the season that is synonymous with rebirth and rejuvenation.

For all the hope, there are cautionary tales hidden in the subtext of such transformation. As I watched the NFL Draft unfold I was overwhelmed by the degree to which many of these young men’s lives will change. Most come from modest backgrounds, where a million dollars is almost unfathomable. Yet, in an instant they become millionaires. This sounds fantastic, but it isn’t without dangers. Having fame, fortune, and freedoms foisted upon them in a blink can be too much. It is easy to understand that they are often unprepared for the temptations suddenly available as well as the reality that they have become targets of exploitation.

One example is Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley. Although it is unwise to make a judgment about this young man at this point. The legal system has yet to make a determination and has yet to even charge him with a crime, his story has become well known within the world of the NFL.

Conley’s life was set to change forever, as he was projected to be a top 10 pick. This meant several million dollars, including guaranteed money, which could set him up for life. All account were that he deserved such a windfall. He was not only a gifted player who worked hard to achieve excellence, he was considered a rock-solid character, a captain and someone who gave back to his community through coaching and youth camps.

Three weeks before the draft, however, Conley was accused of sexual assault. This devastating accusation placed Conley’s dreams in jeopardy. Instead of wrapping his brain around how he was to spend his new fortune and what he needed to master in order to take his considerable talents to the next level, he was facing legal trouble: not merely traffic violations, but sexual assault. This is serious.

It is important not to trivialize this situation or the potential crime that he was accused of. However, video evidence, as well as eyewitness testimony, suggests that Conley was being set up. And before people get too outraged by the dismissal of a potential assault, it is important to make clear that one of two crimes was committed. Either Conley sexually assaulted the young woman, or she assaulted his character. It’s binary and one of the two is guilty.

The magnitude of Conley even being perceived as guilty is important to explain. A couple of years ago an offensive lineman from LSU named La’el Collins was similarly set to be a top draft pick. A top ten pick signs a contract for around ten million dollars. In La’el’s case, his ex-girlfriend had been murdered just days before the draft. Although La’el wasn’t considered a suspect, he was named a person of interest. Because of this, he wasn't drafted at all. When the police investigation was concluded Collins was exonerated and not charged. However, the incident cost him more money than most of will ever see in a lifetime. Fortunately for Collins, he was able to sign with the Dallas Cowboys, albeit for a few hundred thousand dollars and is ineligible for contract renegotiations within the first three years. If he is injured he can never recover the lost money.

Conley seemed destined to a similar fate. The Oakland Raiders, however, did “miles and miles” of research on this case and determined he was being set up. Then they drafted him in the first round, twenty-fourth overall. Conley didn’t get paid top ten money as he anticipated, but he didn’t fall out of the draft like La’el Collins. Conley will still receive millions for his contract, which will likely include clauses to ensure if he were found guilty, the Raiders would not be obligated to pay.

Ultimately, the trappings of wealth and fame are substantial, but often ignored. We ignore them mostly because we would generally love to be confronted with such problems. That doesn’t make them less real nor less dangerous.