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Why 'character concerns' is a meaningless phrase in the NFL

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The NFL and its media partners are at once quick to judge, and then very quick to move on. We shouldn't let them do either.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One phrase I am sick of hearing after the two month path leading to Draft Day is "character concerns."

The narrative is set up so that a player is risky before he arrives, whether it be for something laughable or serious. It demands more media attention as a result, because you can only do so many posts on a guy's 40 time, and then he "overcomes" his "past" once drafted. This means that every NFL player is a success story by virtue of the fact that every single one was vetted intensely by the NFL scouting and drafting process and determined to be profitable. It also means a lot of genuinely nice guys with minor hiccups that most of us likely experience as part of growing up are considered liabilities -- very profitable liabilities.

The NFL and its media ("independent" and otherwise) are adamant in turning every story of misbehavior into one of personal struggle and triumph for the individual athlete. When a player receives a fat paycheck and a jersey with his number on it, it is as if "we" have all "forgiven him", or that he has "matured" and "learned his lesson."  When a "troubled" player gets drafted, he has overcome his past and, in a way, been found "not guilty." And since all players are eventually drafted, they are all eventually found "not guilty." The NFL becomes the arbiter of ethics. That's right. And North Korea once chaired the UN Conference on Disarmament.

The "character concerns" umbrella fits far too many types of behavior, lumping a diverse group of individuals into one pile.

Contrast the inevitable exculpation of every athlete with the media witch-hunt preceding it. Whatever actual bad guys exist get acquitted by this process automatically, and, in the mean time, a lot of good guys deal with petty, dehumanizing prodding into their every decision. The conflation of how NFL teams choose which players to draft with a justice system doling out verdicts offers false dichotomies from beginning to end and temporarily lends the NFL and the media a power it should not, and does not, possess. It allows them both to pretend such questions matter during the vetting process, but then allows them to dismiss that process by saying, once it's over, "Who are we to judge these guys? Just let them play football. We have court systems for that stuff."

After all, so-and-so apologized and said "the right things", which is pretty easy to do once you have million dollar PR firms and agents in your ear. The NFL says that means it is time to get back to football. Well, gee whiz, thanks for your permission. That's all we've been trying to do the whole time, but you insist on putting a "character" category into every player's draft eval.

In the beginning, of course, it is just a way to make the draft seem more drama-filled than it is, by alluding as often as possible to a player's "character concerns", however big or small, and pretending NFL teams actually make such issues an important part of their draft and profit calculus. They don't. Aaron Hernandez legitimately murdered someone. Bob Kraft's stock may have suffered a slight itch. But here we are, being fed the notion that a player's "draft stock" is depleted after he gets caught smoking weed; that this makes him "risky". To the NFL's credit, the reasoning behind this never bothers feigning altruism, or care for the alleged victims, or even concern for the athlete himself. It just openly says that such behavior, if continued, might be bad for business.

Yet despite this bit of accidental honesty, the whole show over "character concerns" is false. Players who appear to me to be really nice family guys -- like our new #1, Marcus Peters -- are said to have "character concerns" for being a little rebellious with their coach, who, in this specific case, seems to have deserved it. I imagine 90% of AP users have "character concerns" if it involves things as innocuous as that.

The NFL and its media partners are at once quick to judge, and then very quick to move on. We shouldn't let them do either.

The "character concerns" umbrella fits far too many types of behavior, lumping a diverse group of individuals into one pile. Take a look, for example, at this NFL article which lists the top 5 guys with "character concerns" before the draft: it goes from Jameis Winston's sexual assault allegations, to Dorial Green-Beckham's allegations regarding a woman and a flight of stairs, to, #3, Marcus Peters being uncoachable! Gasp! And once these players are accepted with a team, the implication is that the scrutinizing process has given them -- one and all -- a "passing grade", or a clean slate.

But most players' slates are pretty darn clean to begin with, and are only muddled by a media witch-hunt as briefly impassioned as it is schizophrenic. Beware of those who appear to really, really, really care about something for a month-and-a-half. Other players' slates may very well be dirty, which only means that dealing with them is far too important a matter to be left to the National Football League -- an organization which doesn't mind some dirt so long as it sprouts money trees.

The result is not desirable for anyone: good guys are over-scrutinized by a ridiculous facade of furrowed brows and pointed fingers, and bad guys are validated by the false consensus of their draft selection. And if that fails, just call the guy "polarizing."  This tactic is now being used for Winston. If one cannot appeal to consensus and to the coveted American healing process, one can appeal to democracy and choice. It's all a show, and one shouldn't act as furniture for it, or as a willing part of the mob. "Character concerns" is a meaningless phrase that signifies either a hypocritical harassment of good men or a dangerous euphemism of bad ones. The NFL and its media partners are at once quick to judge, and then very quick to move on. We shouldn't let them do either.