There's been lots of discussion in NFL circles about a new three-strikes policy for off-the-field behavior (non-drug related), following in the wake of the horrendous triple-shooting in Las Vegas a week ago in which Pacman Jones is alleged to have played an important role. An interesting twist on the discussion is that the players association, including union chief Gene Upshaw and many veteran players appear to be on board. Referring to a group of NFL veterans consulted on the new policy domain:
"The one thing that I thought that was surprising to me is the [players] are sort of moving in the direction of having penalties similar to drug policies -- that at some point you're out," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Assn.
"You can't continue to keep violating policies. You can't be in the wrong place three or four times. One time, two times maybe, but three or four times in the wrong place at the wrong time? They didn't like that."
Commentators throughout the ESPN universe were surprisingly circumspect about the policy yesterday, with folks ranging from Sean Sailisbury, John Clayton, Dan Patrick and Mike and Mike acknowledging that determining what a strike would be is complicated. If someone is arrested, but later acquitted, or the charges are dropped, is that a strike? As I noted above, the Las Vegas shootings, following a season that was great for the NFL on the field but a disaster, really, off of it - have been the culminating event. But, to take that example - would Pacman Jones involvement in those crimes be deemed a strike? Based on what we know so far, the answer would have to be no, I'd think, even if everyone is convinced that Jones is lying about his relationship to the alleged shooter. Until some competent authority can establish a definitive connection between Jones and the crime, we can't say, even though this case might serve as a kind of tipping point for public perceptions of the NFL.
Boumani Jones, of ESPN.com, dislikes the concept of a three strike policy, asking: "can't the NFL police itself?" Jones complains that:
Such a policy would be cute and catchy. So catchy, in fact, that support for the policy has built even though a "strike" hasn't been defined (we'll assume, for the sake of argument, that an arrest is a strike). But this would be little more than a disingenuous, poorly conceived spin job.
Let's not pretend the NFL doesn't know a bad idea in cleats when it sees one. The league performs thorough background checks on each and every player who enters the league -- definitely more in-depth than the background check The Gap runs on its employees -- and it knows who could potentially be a problem. It knows which guys couldn't stay out of bad situations before they got into the league.
The real problem seems to be that the league doesn't pay attention to these things unless the world sees its dirty laundry.
According to Jones (Boumani, that is), the NFL knows everything it needs to know about a player by the time they enter the draft. Thus, implementing a policy that would rely on law enforcement to, in effect, decide for the NFl when someone has become a bad apple, is just nonsense:
Consider the league's three most notorious problem children from the past few months -- Chris Henry, Tank Johnson and Jones.
Henry didn't run afoul of the law in college, but these were the first words under the "negatives" heading of his draft profile on NFL.com: "His maturity level is sorely lacking … has had problems with the coaching staff ever since he arrived at [West Virginia], struggles with his academics and has had more than a fair share of on-field antics … ." Johnson, the product of an unstable upbringing, has long battled questions about his character and judgment. And Jones received a one-year suspended sentence in 2003 for his role in a bar fight in Morgantown while he attended West Virginia.
I don't quite get where Jones is coming from here. My guess is that a decent percentage of NFL players come from what could be described as an "unstable upbringing" and most such players do just fine behaviorally. And, the NFL.com draft report on Jones in 2005 fairly glowed about him, describing how he turned his life around, became the first person in his family to go to college and had nothing negative say about his character. But, more to the point, the idea that we know everything we need to know about how a 21 year old will behave as they get older is just at odds with reality.
Believe it or not, if the policy could be spelled out clearly, and appropriate distinctions made between minor infractions and more serious ones (smoking pot is not as bad as hitting a spouse, for example), I might actually support such a thing. But, we're not going to get very far guessing about people's characters when they're in college. Instead, the issue should be evaluating clear, transgressive behavior, whenever it happens.
But the three strikes question raises other interesting questions - such as to what extent the professional leagues' should make participants off-field or off-court behavior their business? Howard Wasserman, of Sports Law Blog, raises the interesting question of whether the NBA should do anything about the political activities of two Seattle Super Sonics' co-owners, Tom Ward and Aubrey McClendon. Ward and McClendon have, between them, contributed $1.1 million toward Gary Bauer's American United to Preserve Marriage.
As Wasserman points out, the NBA stripped Tim Hardaway of his role as a paid representative for the league after his anti-gay comments. And in doing so, the question is whether the league has opened up a can of worms:
If leagues are going to police what players, owners, and others say, do they need to be consistent? Is what Hardaway said that much worse than what Ward and McClendon are (through their financial support) advocating, such that you can punish Hardaway but not Ward and McClendon? Substantively, there is no difference between saying "I hate gay people" and "I want the law to deny gay people the same basic rights that I (and others like me) have." The former reflects an angrier, more emotional idea than the former. But both are anti-gay-rights points of view. In my view, both are fully protected expression and neither should be the basis for league-imposed punishment. But we too often get caught up in the way things are said, punishing an offensive way of saying something, while ignoring statements that express ideas that are just as troubling when they are stated in a softer way. I am not sure you can justify punishing one and not the other (although again, my preference is that you punish neither).
There's no possibility, of course, that the league is going to punish anybody for their political contributions and I don't personally advocate doing so. But, it is noteworthy that the kinds of things for which players are often criticized amount to crimes of the pettiest sort (marijuana possession, for example which, I have no doubt, most of the people doing the criticizing have been guilty of to one degree or another). And, in the meantime, political activities which, I personally believe, reflect far greater failings of character and with far more destructive consequences for society as a whole, are simply chalked up to differences of opinion.
Let me emphasize a few points, so my position is clear:
1) this discussion is being prompted, most immediately, by a shooting that has left a man paralyzed. There is no difference of opinion about how heinous a crime that is.
2) but, as I've complained before, serious crimes like the shooting often get lumped in with really petty stuff under the same "athletes-behaving-badly" heading, when there are obvious and profound moral differences between different kinds of acts.
3) I understand that, on one level, the distinctions I mentioned above don't matter at all, because all that matters is whether or not something is legal. And, in terms of discipline, that's an easy, and defensible line to draw.
4) but, if you ask me, pouring a million dollars into supporting a bigoted, intolerant movement - based on the absolute ludicrous premise that expanding marriage to include same sex couples somehow undermines it for heterosexual ones - is arguably a more legitimate focus of time and attention than players engaged in misdemeanor transgressions. That is, if we are going to concern ourselves with sports participants' non-sports behavior.
5) but, again, that's just my opinion, not a matter of law.