A sports radio talk show host recently told a caller, “Don’t feel sorry for DeSean Jackson.” Jackson was a star player for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was released by the team amidst rumors of off-the-field activities after a story appeared on NJ.com.
In the ensuing weeks, speculation about Jackson ran wild. Action News’ Vernon Odom compared Jackson to Allen Iverson, a poster boy of bad off-the-field behavior. Both are “flawed persons,” Odom remarked during one of his news reports. Somehow it didn’t stop the division rival Washington Redskins from signing Jackson just three days after his release. The Eagles organization has remained silent throughout this time, content to issue statement that said nothing. So should anyone feel sorry for Jackson?
Jackson still has his career intact. He will continue to be paid more money than you or I will ever see in a lifetime. He is undoubtedly a guy who may take a play off once in awhile, who may miss a team function on occasion, who may show up late for a team meeting and who may even sass the coach. So why any sympathy for another overpaid and spoiled athlete?
I won’t cite football reasons to answer the question, except to say that the Eagles were 10-6 and made the playoffs last season with DeSean Jackson as their best pass receiver. These facts are indisputable. The reason his release (without the Eagles obtaining any compensation) became controversial is precisely that, from a football standpoint, no one really believes the Eagles are a better team without him. The real purpose of this column is to try to understand the damage that has been done to a man’s reputation and what that says about the mindset of too many of the media and fans these days.
There is an axiom that once you lose your reputation, it is near impossible ever to get it back. When the story first broke about Jackson, it was pretty much universally believed the Eagles organization knew something we didn’t. But the NJ.com story turned out to be a rehash of stuff the Eagles already knew two years ago when the organization, then in the hands of Joe Banner and Andy Reid, resigned Jackson to a new five-year contract. Nothing in the story tied Jackson to any criminal activity. Indeed after it broke, the Philadelphia Daily News contacted both local and national law enforcement officials, all of whom confirmed that Jackson was not under suspicion of any criminal activity and had been cooperative when questioned about a killing outside a West Coast property owned by the player. Jackson was in these parts when the crime was committed. Weeks have gone by and no “smoking gun?” has emerged.
What kind of gang associations was Jackson alleged to have? There are photos that show him flashing signs supposedly associated with a West Coast gang. Jackson said that the signs were meant to construe solidarity with his old neighborhood, not gang membership. There is no evidence that Jackson is currently a gang member or involved in any gang activity, but admittedly he has kept some of those friendships. Those of us who live in this area, who grew up with guys who later became involved in criminal activity, did not turn our backs on old neighborhood friendships. We understand what guilt by association is about. That seems to be the real “crime” Jackson committed. But it is a well-known fact around the NFL that Jackson is just one of a number of players who could be accused of guilt by association. Again, why Jackson?
Some media and fans point to the fact that his former teammates did not rush to support him as a sign that he was a bad guy. The report I get from someone who is in the team locker room frequently (more frequently than some of Jackson’s critics, some of whom never stepped foot in the locker room during the season) is that DeSean was quiet, not a distraction at all. He did not hang with teammates off the field, a likely reason teammates did not rush to his defense. There is probably also another factor at work. Jackson is gone, but head coach Chip Kelly, who made the decision to get rid of Jackson, is still in charge. Players wanting to remain in the coach’s good graces are probably not going to rush to defend Jackson.
It is well-known around professional football that a number of star players in the league carry with them the reputation of being divas. There is what I call a pain-in-the-butt factor. A coach must balance a player’s value to the team against the difficulty of dealing with him. In Jackson’s case, Kelly felt the balance was tipped the wrong way. That is a coach’s right, and he will succeed or fail based upon his decision. But the Eagles did something that was not right at all. They allowed the story about Jackson’s alleged gang ties to be used as cover for their controversial release. The organization let Jackson twist in the wind. The Eagles’ front office is gutless. It allowed the reputation of Jackson to be needlessly destroyed while they stood by silently.
And for that reason, we should feel sorry for Jackson.
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