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The issues with “character issues”

The all-to-common mistreatment of troubled players

Aaron Hernandez, former tight end for the New England Patriots, was arrested this summer under suspicion of murdering his girlfriendís sisterís boyfriend (if you hadnít heard). In the wake of his arrest, a report in Rolling Stone came out claiming that, during college, he had needed constant supervision to prevent him from lashing out at others. This didnít stop the Patriots from drafting him in 2010 (they knew of his past indiscretions, including a bar fight), and then giving him a $40 million contract in 2012. They figured that his immense talent was worth the risk of his past issues. Rolling Stone also reported that before this summer, Hernandez had begun taking PCP regularly, was acting increasingly paranoid, and had been instructed to go to a safe house by his coach.

The reports have been denied by the Patriots, in an attempt to distance themselves from Hernandez, but at the very least, they knew, when they drafted him, that he had previously had ìcharacter issuesî (the catch-all phrase used in reference to players who commit crimes or make mistakes in college or high school). At some level, they knew about his erratic behaviour leading up the murder, and didnít do anything to really help him.

The Hernandez story is an extreme example of the norm when it comes to players with ìcharacter issuesî ñ a general disregard for the playerís well-being. Professional athletes with enough talent are given the benefit of the doubt for past mistakes until they become liabilities to the team.

But the idea of ìcharacter issuesî itself is highly racialized, as non-white players are characterized by the media and scouts as ìthugsî or ìgangsters,î whereas white players are seen as kids who have just made a mistake. As a result, the treatment players get can vary dramatically.

Iíll take an example from college football: Tyrann Mathieu, now a cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals, was suspended at the end of his 2011 season at Louisiana State University for breaking team rules. Reports stated that Mathieu had failed a drug test after smoking synthetic marijuana. In 2012, he was again suspended, reportedly for testing positive for marijuana. He later enrolled in drug rehabilitation, and then was caught with marijuana and kicked off the team. He was drafted in the third round (lower than he was projected), and the pick was considered risky for the Cardinals. This is all for a player smoking marijuana, a recreational drug that, though illegal, is hardly likely to make the player a liability.

Compare that to Johnny Manziel, the current quarterback for Texas A&M. There are multiple photos of Manziel drinking alcohol while underage, for which he has never received team punishment. Manziel was also caught up in a ëscandalí this summer after he was caught selling his autograph, a violation of collegiate rules. He was suspended one half of one game by his coach. Both of these players are labeled as having ìcharacter issues,î so whatís the difference? Mathieu is black, and Manziel is white. One guy loses a season for marijuana, the other gets nothing for drinking and a half a game for selling autographs. Manziel is expected to be a first round pick in next yearís draft, even with his ìcharacter issues.î Itís just one example of how non-white athletes are consistently treated more harshly for their mistakes.

In the intensely weird world of draft scouting, when players are put under a microscope by teams and media alike, nothing makes a prospect fall faster than perceived ìcharacter issues.î These are as innocuous as getting caught smoking or drinking while in college (inconceivable!) and illegally making money as a college athlete to more serious crimes such as theft or violence. Either way, if a player makes a mistake at school, they are likely to fall draftwise for it, because franchises mostly want their players to be sportsmachines committed to just playing the game. And some players are dinged a little harder than others.

For players who are talented enough, the label of ìcharacter issuesî means they get drafted later and lose millions of dollars; for many others, it means not getting drafted at all, and facing the uphill battle of making a team after the draft. For instance, in football, Vontaze Burfict was predicted by many to be a top five draft pick in the 2012 National Football League (NFL) draft. While Burfict admitted to the media that he only played ìaverageî football the year before, what damaged him more was his reputation for being ìout of controlî (according to one unnamed scout) off the field. Burfict ended up going completely undrafted before signing with the Cincinnati Bengals. Heís now one of the better linebackers in the league, though people still consider the Bengals signing him a risky move.

For every Burfict that makes it to the professional league, there are many more who bounce around, never finding a stable team situation. Even when players do make it to the league despite their ìcharacter issues,î they are kept on a shorter leash than other players,  basically given a one-strike policy. This is not to say that players should not be supported by their organization, but these organizations are not truly ìsupportingî their players.  Rather, they are holding them to a much stricter standard than anyone else and giving no latitude for their mistakes. Take Dez Bryant, a wide receiver who sat out his final year of college after it was ruled that he was in contact with a sports agent. He was still drafted in the first round ñ a marker of his skill ñ but the team gave him guidelines that bordered on the absurd. Bryant reportedly had a midnight curfew, had to ask for the teamís permission to go out at night, and had a rotating crew of security personnel during his free time. The expectation of formerly ëtroubledí players is that they will never make another mistake again if they want to keep their jobs.

ëTroubledí players are usually cut or traded once a team decides that theyíre not worth the trouble. Instead of dealing with the problem, teams are more likely to simply get rid of the player and let them be someone elseís problem. If the player canít be molded ñ to be committed to the team only ñ then they are usually cut loose. If another team decides that the playerís risk is worth the possible reward, theyíll sign him, usually for far less money. If not, depending on the sport, they must find work elsewhere (in foreign leagues, or minor leagues) or re-enter the non-sports world. There, they donít have even the modest support system of the team, and many are unprepared to find jobs in any other profession ñ usually because they either did not finish college, or never prepared in any way for a life outside sports.

The problem with all this is the lack of action by professional teams to help their players. They knowingly draft players with ìcharacter issuesî ñ oftentimes much lower in the draft than they should be ñ or sign them and if they screw up again, reject them. Itís a system that basically says, ìbe perfect, or get out,î instead of supporting its players without holding them to an impossible standard.