Since When Did Character Count in Sports?

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Getty Images

Folks are judged by the "content of their character" less frequently than the norm in certain professions. Take big-time sports, for instance. The most-valued traits for athletes are usually based on prowess, such as their time in the 40-yard dash, or their jump shot, or their ability to hit a curveball, or their serve, or their putter; etc.


But former Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant picked the wrong year to be labeled "character risk." With the flood of negative publicity surrounding Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (accused of sexual assault twice within the past 10 months), compared and contrasted to the gushing over former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (a virtual choirboy by any standard), character was a hot-button issue leading up to the NFL draft. Most scouts considered Bryant the best wide receiver available, but he fell to the 24th overall pick. Most scouts considered Tebow a second- or third-round pick, but he was selected 25th overall.

Although Bryant paid a price this year, athletes often get a pass for suspect moral fiber, though they're certainly not alone. The same is largely true in the entertainment industry, where the ability to play an instrument or play a role is more important than the ability to play nice with others. Likewise, exceptional talent in business and politics often results in more leeway ethically and morally—at least until revelations and public pressure become unbearable, leading to shamed departures (and, in many cases, redemptive comebacks).

There's nothing wrong with "good" folks, the upstanding, honest and clean-cut ilk. Their deportment is commendable. It's just that everyone doesn't fit that description, including many individuals with abundant aptitude. Consciously or not, society applies a sliding scale to those with rare talents. Those who are more gifted, and therefore harder to replace, get away with more. I'm not saying they can get away with crimes, although the equation often holds even in those cases. I'm talking about displaying traits that run afoul of upstanding behavior, such as dishonesty, substance abuse, verbal abuse, adultery and womanizing.

The sports world has employed countless "bad boys" over the years, seemingly more than its fair share. There have been unabashed racists like Ty Cobb and potheads like Ricky Williams; game-fixers like the Black Sox and serial philanderers like Tiger Woods; hellions like John McEnroe and cokeheads like Steve Howe—not to mention convicted rapists (Mike Tyson), murder conspirators (the NHL's Mike Danton) and drug dealers (the NFL's Jamal Lewis). But the fact that top athletes are so skilled and so rare makes it easier for team owners and fans to overlook behavior when possible, sometimes even violent and criminal behavior. In turn, it's easier for wayward athletes to find second and third chances after overstaying their welcome.

Roethlisberger was the subject of trade rumors following the last incident. But if the Steelers cut him outright, only a fool would bet against the two-time Super Bowl winner signing with another team. His talent outweighs his traits, opposed to Tebow, whose near-saintly image led the Denver Broncos to move up for him. The Dallas Cowboys moved up, too, but they did so to snare Bryant. Owner Jerry Jones was determined to not repeat the mistake made in 1998, when Dallas was among 19 teams that declined to select wide receiver Randy Moss, who's merely en route to the Hall of Fame.

The truth is NFL teams were concerned with Bryant's upbringing and relatives more than the man himself, who—unlike his mother—has never been arrested or accused of using drugs. Angela Bryant had Dez when she was 15 and two more children by 18 (unfortunate, but no crime). Then she was arrested in 1997 and served time for selling crack. On May 4, reports surfaced that she's been arrested twice since 2008. All of which is immaterial to Dez Bryant's NFL prospects.


Whether his mother was a prostitute is even more irrelevant. Yet, incredibly, Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland asked that very question during a pre-draft interview.

If Bryant had responded, "You mean like YOUR mother?" I wouldn't have a problem. I'd also endorse his reply if it was a straight right to the eye. But Bryant showed more character (and restraint) in answering that inappropriate question than Ireland did in asking it. Bryant said "no." I don't care if Angela Bryant had been a prostitute, Ireland deserves to be disciplined by the NFL.


Sports executives need to recognize that character is a two-way street, and they can go off-road in their zeal to determine a player's integrity. Executives also must remember that they have less room for error compared to players, who drive ticket sales and TV ratings. Sleazy general managers in the front office are easier to replace than all-world talent on the field.

Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root.

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