Athletes Get Too Many Breaks? How About Folks Like Bill Bonds and Mitch Albom?
Angry over the recent spate of troubles that have dogged select Detroit Lions players—particularly the Sunday morning DUI arrest of 2011 first-round pick Nick Fairley—Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp hollers and throws up both his hands at the team for failing to go Maximum Bob on the young fellas.
The Lions could cut them right now, but they won’t, because Fairley, Young and Leshoure, who was arrested twice within weeks on separate marijuana-possession charges, could contribute to a team the public thinks should build upon 2011's 10-6 playoff season.
The Lions don’t have the guts to take such measures.
The fans don’t care, either, as long as there’s a chance they finally can pull for a winner. If that’s what you want, fine. But from this point forward, never again confuse accountability with what’s right.
OK, even if we accept that Fairley's DUI is a big deal—and it is—why does that mean we also have to accept that failing to fire him right away represents some sort of abrogation of responsibility on the part of the Lions? And why do we have to buy into the bullshit that's Implicit in this: The same fake analogy that sportswriters like to level at anyone not immediately apoplectic at such screw ups? The one that says, "These guys couldn't get away with this in the 'real' world."
Well, first off, pro football is light years from the "real world" of medium-wage industrial or corporate drudgery, so whatever.
Secondly, the analogy, held as gospel in many quarters of sports fandom, just is not true. Talented screw-ups often get far more allowances than their mediocre counterparts, precisely because employers know these people are more than capable of delivering on their vast potential, personal problems or not.
From the cokehead pop star coddled by his music label to the alcoholic county executive constantly insulated from the repercussions of his own excessive drinking, the talented and coveted often seem to have more lives than many. (That's exactly why so many employers offer treatment, counseling and other programs designed to give valued employees a second, and even and third and fourth, chance to get their act together and contribute.)
Sports halls of fame are filled with men--from Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb to Lawrence Taylor and Michael Irvin--who danced daily with their personal demons only to find ways to cast them aside on game days and aspire to legendary feats. And yes, these men were often forgiven for their failures by the teams they led to greatness.
And it's not just sports or entertainment or politics.
Those of us who grew up watching Bill Bonds, for instance, know just how many excuses talent can buy a man. An alcoholic prima donna with a domineering streak, Bonds screwed up for years and years with countless DUIs and other drink-fueled escapades. And year in, year out, Channel 7 kept him around because he brought a brilliant gravitas to their newscasts and was inarguably the best television interviewer any Detroit newscast has ever seen. It wasn't until Bonds was, at long last, running on fumes that he was let go.
Hell, Sharp only need look over a few cubicles at Mitch Albom, himself upbraided for making false claims in columns and yet somehow still a regular, highly spotlighted presence in our Sunday morning broadsheets.
And honestly, isn't keeping around a lying journalist jfar more egregious and "gutless" than not sacking a drunken man-child whose lone professional purpose is to excel at a kid's game?
Sharp's right when he says the Lions want to keep Fairley and company around because they think those guys can help them blossom further. I'm just not sure why this is so wrong.
Whenever an athlete gets cut or gets screwed over in negotiations, sports writers move swiftly to remind us that sports, football especially, is a "bottom-line" business driven purely by the need to "win now." If you don't produce, you're gone and nobody owes you so much as a nod goodbye on your way out the door.
But somehow, when it comes to a team choosing to keep a kid around after he messes up, the same principle doesn't apply. Suddenly, the posturing that comes with sports "realpolitik" goes out the window. Teams can dump a good guy who can't help them win in the name of the bottom line, but they aren't supposed to keep around troubled talent in the name of the same objective.
One is just business while the other, we're to believe, represents some sort of burning hypocrisy.
Well, I think that's a childish outlook, especially coming from someone who has spent decades in locker rooms, press boxes and on sidelines covering these games. The Lions aren't a civil-rights organization or a church or a homeless charity. They're a football team, and their sole business is that of winning games.
Sure, there is a point at which a player's talent isn't enough to offset whatever problems he brings to the table, though I don't think Fairley or Young or Leshoure have arrived at that point.
And yes, there are lines we should all draw, the same as most anyone would in the "real world." Few companies would keep a serial killer or child rapist on the payroll, no matter how talented they are. But weed? A first-time DUI? Yes, there are places where you'd get canned the first time around for these offenses, I suppose. But there are just as many employers who either wouldn't take notice or wouldn't make much of it as long as you didn't miss work, arrived on time and got your job done to their satisfaction.
You think the day-shift manager at the grocery store cares if his stock clerk got busted two nights ago for DUI? Does the fast-food supervisor can the kid working fries because of some cops shook him down for weed at a park? Not if they show up. Not if they work hard. Not if they produce.
I'm not saying the Lions shouldn't punish Fairley. (I can forgive the weed, but the DUI was dumb and dangerous to anyone who might've been on that road with Fairley.) But I think Sharp's take is too harsh, too premature and too naive in its screeching moralizing.
Unquestionably, an athlete's criminal antics can foster internal disruption on a team, hampering the team's ability to go out and do what it's supposed to do: Win games. If Fairley, Young and Leshoure can't help the Lions win, they'll be gone soon enough. But screwing the salary cap to punish these guys and play the zero-tolerance PR games is counterproductive and knee-jerk.
The Lions aren't wrong for not kicking these young men off the team. And in this case, it's not the fans but rather the holier-than-thou sports media who've confused "accountability with what's right."