By Evan Weiner
The question that should be asked about Michael Sam is pretty simple and pretty obvious. It is not whether the National Football League should accept Michael Sam as a player but can Michael Sam accept the National Football League?
Michael Sam will be the first announced gay man ever to enter the National Football League job hunt better known as the NFL Draft, which in itself is an illegal way of bringing people into the NFL workplace but antitrust matters have been put aside in this case because two parties—the owners and players—have collectively bargained an agreement that includes the drafting of outsiders without allowing those outsiders the right to get multiple offers for their services.
There are those who are worried that Michael Sam somehow will besmirch the National Football League and the league’s logo which in the industry is called “The Shield”. But here is a list of items that have occurred since the middle of 2012 that seemingly have not damaged the shield.
Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam (and his brother Tennessee Governor Billy Haslam) has been involved in a federal investigation of his company, Flying Pilot J, for withholding rebates to Flying Pilot J’s partners. Haslam claims he had no knowledge of the rebate scheme and has not been charged in the case. Ten Flying Pilot J employees have pleaded guilty to federal charges and seemingly are cooperating with investigators.
The NFL has not yet tried to strip Haslam of his ownership of the team but then again Haslam has not been indicted by the Feds in the scheme.
While Haslam waits for the next step in the investigation, another owner–Minnesota’s Zygi Wilf—might also be a candidate to put a dent in “The Shield. Wilf, along with his brother and cousin, is appealing a court ruling which ordered the family to pay $100 million in damages and legal fees over a broken deal to develop an apartment complex in New Jersey. Wilf, as part of the case, is asking the court to not ask them to reveal how much money the family is worth. That would not be a good public relations move for the family or the NFL as both the family and The Shield pressured the Minnesota legislature last year to come up with public money for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium. The legislature and the governor signed off on the new stadium funding and the state is now having an enormous amount of trouble figuring out how to fund Wilf’s new factory or stadium.
Sam wants to work for people like Haslam and Wilf.
Sam will join a workplace that includes a number of players who also could damage “The Shield”. U-T San Diego has a data base of NFL players who have been arrested going back to 2000. The list seemingly grows and grows. Four players have been arrested since New Year’s Day,
On January 26, 2014, San Francisco 49ers player Daniel Kilgore was charged with public intoxication in Kingsport, Tennessee. On January 17, 2014, Cleveland Browns player Davone Bess was arrested for assaulting a law enforcement officer at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport. On January 9, 2014, Tampa Bay’s Michael Hill was taken in on charges of disorderly conduct stemming from a bar fight in St. Joseph, Missouri. On New Year’s Day, Minnesota’s Erin Henderson was nabbed on driving while intoxicated along with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia and other charges following a single-car accident in Chanhassen, Minnesota. A total of 16 players faced various charges including Henderson since the start of the 2013 training camp.
Two players who were involved in deaths in 2012 have not faded away. In January, Josh Brent was convicted of intoxication manslaughter in a car crash that killed his Dallas Cowboys teammate Jerry Brown. Brent was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and is serving 180 days in prison. Theoretically he could return to the NFL.
The mother of Jovan Belcher, the Kansas City Chiefs player who killed himself at the Kansas City football team’s training facility in front of his coach and general manager after murdering the mother of his child is attempting to sue the franchise. Cheryl Shepherd filed a wrongful-death lawsuit because she alleges that he was subjected to “repetitive head trauma” and that the team didn’t provide adequate medical care before the murder-suicide of December 1, 2012. But all was well in Kansas City after Andy Reid came in and the franchise had a winning record in 2013. Belcher didn’t do any damage to “The Shield.”
Aaron Hernandez is still in the news.
The one time New England Patriots player pleaded not guilty to charges in the death of Odin Lloyd who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancée. The New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft quickly cut ties with Hernandez but that doesn’t mean Hernandez has been forgotten.
In many ways, Kraft’s Patriots is emblematic of the NFL’s culture. .The Patriots coach Bill Belichek is no angel. He had a valid contract with the Jets in 2000 and quit as the “HC” of the team. He ended up in New England. One day the whole story will probably come out on the Belichek quitting and ending up in New England. Then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue gave the Jets a first round draft choice from New England at assuage the team.
Belichek, in 2007, was hit with a $500,000 fine, the team with a $250,000 fine and a first round pick in 2008 for videotaping Jets defensive signals which is against league rules. His personal life is also mixed. He was named in a divorce case as a person who broke up a marriage. His sons have been arrested on minor charges. He has a history of hiring players with questionable character.
Yet it is all perfectly good in the “Patriot Way” of doing things.
In 2012, the team hired Dante Stallworth who had spent time in a Florida jail following a DUI manslaughter charge. Aqib Talib has an impressive rap sheet. He allegedly assaulted a taxi driver in 2009 and in 2011 alleged fired a gun at his sister’s boyfriend. Kraft’s team took Alfonzo Dennard in the 2012 draft about a week after punching a police officer. Dennard did 30 days jail time.
Kraft’s team hired Albert Haynesworth in 2011 a number of months after Haynesworth was fired by Washington. Among the police blotter incidents that Haynesworth rang up was an arrest for punching a motorist in the face because of a road rage incident and a bad accident caused by driving 100 miles an hour that left a motorist paralyzed.
Brandon Spikes in 2010 was suspended for violating the league’s drug policy.
Another Belichek signee was Willie Andrews who did 30 days in jail for gun possession in 2002. Andrews was no model citizen when Belichek hired him in 2006 but he helped the team get to the Super Bowl in 2008. After the Super Bowl, Andrews was arrested on a marihuana charge. A few months later, Andrews was arrested for drawing a gun on his girlfriend. At that point, the Patriots brand was taking a hit and Andrews was fired.
In 2005, Belichek hired Corey Dillon, a good running back, who had an assault on his wife charge in 2005.
In the Bill Parcells days, Kraft fired Christian Peter, a drafted player, before Peter ever stepped onto the field with the Patriots. Peter had a history of physical abuse of women while in college.
Kraft has carefully crafted the Patriots brand and image and winning certainly has camouflaged the dark and seedy side of his business. Kraft too is not exactly a paragon of virtue to Patriots fans. He attempted to move the team out of Foxboro because of stadium problems and was eyeing Hartford as a possible destination.
In 1998, Kraft had a deal with Connecticut Governor John Rowland to relocate the franchise to Hartford. Rowland was going to build the stadium with state money and give Kraft 90 percent of the revenue generated in the building and build a hotel on the property and not pay any property taxes. A sweetheart deal to be sure. But Kraft pulled out of the deal two days before he would have had to pay a buyout fee because of “environmental” concerns. Massachusetts taxpayers kicked in $75 million and there were other incentives for Kraft to build his own factory or stadium in Foxboro.
Kraft said he would have no problems if the team decided to draft Sam. Maybe Sam should look at the Kraft stewardship and ask himself why would I want to go there?
“We’re about winning,” Kraft was quoted in Monday’s Boston Herald. “And anyone who can come in here and help us win, I personally don’t care what their ethnic background is, their racial background, the gender preference. If they can help us win, and they’re about team first, then I’m happy to have him here.”
Kraft has had criminals on his team and that hasn’t dented “The Shield” or the New England Patriots brand.
The NFL is filled with bad characters. Michael Vick did jail time after running a dog fighting business. Riley Cooper screamed a slur during a concert and both are on NFL rosters. The bad characters on teams seemingly never cause distractions. Tim Tebow was a “distraction” mainly because of his religious beliefs and now there is Sam who might cause distractions for a team.
Already there is talk that Sam’s draft stock is falling and then there is the Jonathan Vilma quote about being his possible teammate that he gave to the NFL Network. “”I think that he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” Vilma said. “I don’t want people to just naturally assume, like, ‘Oh, we’re all homophobic.’ That’s really not the case. Imagine if he’s the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me.
“How am I supposed to respond?”
The next day Vilma backtracked in an interview with CNN presenter Anderson Cooper. “It was a poor illustration of the example I was trying to give on the context, so I do apologize for that,” Vilma said. “I was trying to explain that whenever you have change into something that’s been set in stone for so long, something that’s been going for so long, that change always comes with a little resistance.”
Vilma is another guy who should have dented “The Shield” but didn’t. Vilma was a central figure in the allegations that New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams put a bounty on opposing players. Vilma was initially suspended for the 2011 season but the suspension was overturned. Vilma is still playing and Williams is still coaching.
Vince Lombardi had a gay player on his team in Green Bay in the 1960s. There never was a problem in Green Bay. Lombardi also helped desegregate housing in Green Bay. Lombardi is known as a bad ass coach for allegedly said “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” That seems in retrospect not to be the case in looking at Lombardi’s body of work. The league needs more Lombardis than the front office people who seem to think Sam is not worth the trouble of employing because he is too much of a distraction. A distraction in a league that has owners being investigated for wrong doing, front office personnel who have been caught driving under the influence of liquor and scores of players arrested, a concussion class action suit filed by former players that has not been settled as of yet, a franchise in Washington that is getting attention because the team’s name is considered a slur and the league is under fire for having nonprofit, tax exempt status since 1966 as an industry association. This applies to the league office not the 32 teams.
Sam is not the real threat to damage “The Shield” but he will watched carefully and not for the right reasons. He should be judged on talent like everyone else in the league but he won’t and that should damage “The Shield”.
Evan Weiner can be reached at [email protected] . His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/365489 ) and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/americas-passion-how-coal/id595575002?mt=11 ), From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/from-peach-baskets-to-dance/id636914196?mt=11 ) and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/business-and-politics-of-sports-evan-weiner/1101715508?ean=2940044505094) and reissue of the 2010 e-book The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/business-politics-sports-selection/id771331977?mt=11 ) are available from e-book distributors globally. 2014 e-book, sports business 2010-14(https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/393652). The e-books are available from e-book distributors globally.