John Scutellaro is a former Hoboken cop. He knows from long experience that in New York, the enthusiasm of the fans and the press, combined with the popping flashbulbs of the paparazzi, can make it painfully easy for professional athletes to embarrass themselves.
So easy, in fact, that Scutellaro is trying to earn a living guaranteeing it won't happen.
After destroying his knee in an on-the-job motorcycle crash, Scutellaro left the force to indulge an idea he'd been working on for the better part of a decade: starting a full-service security company for athletes that provides safe drivers, undercover bodyguards and unofficial angels-on-the-shoulder.
The idea first came to him when his patrol included a Hoboken bar owned by a pair of Giants—Jumbo Elliott and Erik Howard. There, he often saw drunks trying to goad football players into trouble—and players making some less-than-brilliant decisions. His idea, he said, was to "try to get the athlete out of harm's way before things happened."
Scutellaro's four-year-old company, Player Protect, has signed contracts with the Giants, Jets and Nets. Unlike other services NFL players use to arrange rides, this company's approach is more comprehensive.
But the broader appeal of Player Protect, Scutellaro said, is that its agents do 90% of their work outside the car. If they know that some nightlife establishment is under criminal investigation, for instance, they make sure the player knows.
They also keep an ear out for patrons who might be saying or planning something untoward. Scutellaro said his men have heard a woman spy an athlete and say, "I can make myself rich," and a man who'd lost a sports bet theorize about breaking a player's leg. "We are not police acting as police—we're lookouts," Scutellaro said.
Perhaps the most infamous recent example of a worst-case scenario is the November night in 2008 when former wide receiver Plaxico Burress of the Giants had a gun inadvertently go off in a Manhattan club.
"Once they're with us, it's a protective bubble, and we have to be in charge of it. We have to be in control," Scutellaro said. He said his men have removed people that were accompanying Player Protect clients because they wouldn't acquiesce to a search.
Jets safety James Ihedigbo said ceding control has never been an issue. The Jets signed with Player Protect this past September, and Ihedigbo said he has used the service both as part of a large group of teammates going out after a game, and on his own. He has never been in a situation where his assigned officer indicated he was unsafe, but if he was, he said, "I wouldn't even hesitate to listen. It's what they're there for. Their ears can pick up things mine can't."
Ihedigbo said that through March, the Jets paid Player Protect's entire fee and never put a limit on the number of times a player could use it. He said it helps that the company uses a system of blind billing: When the Jets get the bill, they see only a randomly assigned number for the player, not a name.
Charles Way, the Giants' director of player development, who gave Player Protect its first contract on Christmas Eve, 2008 (not long after the Burress incident), agreed players wouldn't enlist Player Protect if they thought it was a way for their team to spy on them.
He said the Giants require their players to pay a portion of the company's fee. "It's a shared responsibility," he said. "We will offset some of the costs because we do care about you. We're going to help you, but you are still an adult and it's your personal character at stake."
With the NFL now in the fourth month of its labor impasse, and the NBA just beginning its own lockout, players have to pick up their entire tabs. Player Protect's contract with the Giants is on hold, and the Jets won't renew theirs, until football returns. The deal Player Protect just signed with the Nets is also, at least temporarily, off.
Scutellaro said business isn't as brisk as he thinks it should be. So he instituted a lockout fare that, he said, several players have taken advantage of. Giants end Justin Tuck hired Player Protect to help with his annual fund-raiser, a celebrity billiards tournament in New York. Player Protect provided security, rides for all of Tuck's VIPs and a level of safety.
Giants tackle Chris Canty called Player Protect to pick him up at the airport in April and had Scutellaro send two men and two specialty vans to North Carolina for his charity event.
Ihedigbo, the Jets safety, said he has called Player Protect during the lockout just for a regular evening out in Manhattan. He lives in Jersey City, where a cab ride in or out of New York costs roughly $50, but he said he'd rather spend twice that for the peace of mind.
"It's just better safe than sorry," he said. "God forbid anything ever happens, in a restaurant or a lounge, and someone tries to say something [bad] happened [that didn't], a cop is someone who's respected and who can vouch for you."
Scutellaro said his men have written reports to NFL Security, detailing incidents that otherwise might have been "he said, she said" quagmires.
Ultimately, Scutellaro hopes that when a new collective-bargaining agreement is signed, his business will once again pick up and spread. He has a network of officers ready in every pro city, and newspaper clippings about athlete misbehavior in at least half. "It's about keeping these athletes off the front page," he said, "and on the sports page."
Write to Aditi Kinkhabwala at email@example.com