Marv Levy is given attribution to the quote, “Personality is what you do when everybody is looking, and character is what you do when no one is looking.” Does character matter anymore? Does it matter, specifically, in the NFL?
The events of recent years have intermittently cast a light on whether teams and by extension, fans, should give weight to whether or not a person is a ‘good’ person or not when making decisions about personnel. For years, the Raiders had the impression of being a bunch of ex-cons and thugs. It served them well (whether or not it was true). It was, however, the exception. More modern associations rang true on the Bengals who had more than their fair share of legal run-ins in recent times (32 in this span and #2 on the list behind Minnesota with 33) but are hardly the exception. What seems to be the case, and it goes far beyond the confines of the NFL, is that people are just not very nice anymore.
Now before you accuse me of being all misty eyed and simple, there was a time when illegal activity was seen as a kinda big deal. A time when being arrested was a HUGE deal socially and when your name, your family’s name, meant something. Even the youngest of the readers here must certainly remember those days. When I started this article, I found a link to the transcript from an “Outside the Lines” show from 2000 (Link: http://sports.espn.go.com/page2/tvlistings/show2transcript.html) on character in the NFL. In that article, the concerning trends seem to have been countered by numbers showing suspensions were down year over year from 1997 to 1999. Some research online shows the following:
Now even back in 2000, there were references to cover ups skewing the numbers. Are these numbers outside the norms for the general population? I doubt it (and am too lazy to validate it). The problem is that these people are NOT the normal population. They, through their natural ability, hard work and good fortune, are a select few that get to be well compensated to play a game that millions love. They enjoy celebrity that rivals that of movie stars and politicians. In some cases, this level of scrutiny is just as problematic to them as it is to the folks in Hollywood. But, regardless of the stress that comes with fame, and despite what Charles Barkley thinks, when you are a public figure, you are a role model. Karl Malone (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1138690/index.htm#ixzz1I74qjMYM ) said it beautifully, “We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.”
So if we agree that at least not being a complete buffoon is important, what is the competing need that an NFL team faces that makes them allow players (and coaches from time to time) to act outside acceptable norms? The only answer I have heard is the need to win. The concept is that talent trumps everything else. We kicked off a quick pole on our site and it seems, even in a basic question where there is no challenge to the response, people are very open about winning at all costs. (40% answered “Just WIN baby!” to the question “Should character and actions ‘Outside the lines’ be considered for NFL Players or is it simply about winning to you?”). I am a rabid fan. I absolutely abhor losing. But, at some point, shouldn’t there be more to it than just the wins and losses?
Again, I am no fan of the current trend of not keeping score in little league games or giving out “Participation” awards in lieu of trophies. I believe there is inherent value in teaching the concept of and living a life where success (and more importantly, the pursuit of success) is important. There is, however, a line between important and all-important. This is the line I feel that the NFL (at least) has crossed.
As a Bucs fan, I hear constantly about the ‘good ole days,’ with Coach Dungy (who was run out of town by not just the ownership but also a large group of the fans, for whom the playoffs were simply not good enough). They harken back to great community figures and leaders like Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn and John Lynch (among others). There seems to be a belief that you cannot possibly be a character first team AND be successful. That you must choose one or the other. That is no truer than saying our current team has no character. (Example, and despite my disagreement with his handling of the current labor situation, Jeff Faine and his Charity work http://www.chsfl.org/Locations/Central-Florida/NEW!-The-Faine-House) But what I end up asking myself is whether or not what we have now is enough?
This diatribe is not about trying to punish people. It is about enforcing good choices through inclusion, rather than exclusion. I think that if a person pays his debt to society he should be given another chance in life. That chance does not guarantee another shot at playing the greatest sport in the world (sorry soccer fans) at the highest level. If a team wants to provide a place for guys who get in trouble repeatedly, that is their choice. I would prefer that team not be the one that I love. Maybe I like the old western model with a bad guy (the Raiders) and a good guy (apparently, everyone else). But, to be honest, do I think it would be a bad message to tell guys that nobody with a felony can play in the NFL? Would that abridge some sort of right that I am unaware of? Would it send a very clear message to young people about making the right choices?
Now it is important at this point to draw a distinction. Many people combine the action with the person. While they are linked, drawing sweeping accusations about ‘thugs’ and the like are gross generalizations and not useful. A very good person can do a horrible thing. We must assess the impact of their actions and try to realize that most of the time; we have no idea who they actually are as a person.
A stance like that does not have to be imposed from the top down. Companies across the country and the world implement rules and guidelines for hiring and firing that allow them to enforce a corporate culture. Hell, my language is enough to make me unacceptable to many companies even though, when on the job or in a job focused setting, I never have an issue. The funny part is that I accept that as ‘them’s the rules.’ Maybe what the NFL is missing in this case are some clear rules. (And I do NOT mean ones that make contact illegal).
As referenced earlier, Charles Barkley made his stance, “I am not a role model,” famous. At some levels, I even agree. But, when building a team it seems to me there are some foundational goals not up for debate:
- Play to Win – You are to field a competitive team that is built on a foundation to provide an opportunity to compete for the highest prize in the land every year. This will produce a good product for the fans and hopefully lead to attendance and economic stimulation.
- Participate (In the community) – The economic stimulation is a by-product. By actually connecting with the community, the team transcends the field and becomes an institution. Bonds are built between the organization, its players (ambassadors) and the community that supports it. This kind of relationship allows a team to survive even when the on-field results are not ideal (as those things do tend to go in cycles)
- Be responsible – As one of the highest profile organizations in any city they enter, every single member of the franchise must act in a way that represents himself, his team and the league well because he is held up as a star in the community and, externally represents that same community outwardly.
Does this mean that I think players have to be perfect? No. Nobody is perfect. If you make a mistake, own it. Take actions to correct it. Be sincere. (If you have not already read the Karl Malone story, read it now as he has a great segment on the fact that being a role model does not make you perfect.) This list is simple and it works even outside of sports. They are core values I think everyone can agree are important. Maybe better stated:
- Work Hard (Play to Win)
- Help Each Other
- Don’t be an imbecile (Golden rule anyone?)
These are not herculean requests. They are ideals I expect out of my son. They are ideals I expect out myself.
They are ideals we should demand out of our team.
For anyone wondering about the Bucs only issues, here is another equally crappy graphic: