First, let's get this straight: I have never liked DeSean Jackson.
He's always been a bit too preening. A bit too selfish. Classic, unadulterated me-me guy. DeSean Jackson has always loved him some DeSean Jackson.
His teammates? What teammates? Who cares? Just as long as DeSean gets paid and DeSean is the star and DeSean gets the touchdowns and DeSean can talk about DeSean being DeSean and every day is DeSean day.
I used to do a list of the biggest jerks in sports, and Jackson always made it.
Sure, there are much worse sumbitches in professional sports—like, say, Ryan Braun. But the typical Jackson moment came in 2011 leading up to what was a critical game for the Philadelphia Eagles franchise. Jackson was late to a team meeting, and Andy Reid had to suspend him.
Jackson was embroiled in a contract dispute and made it clear all season he cared only about getting paid. The Eagles lost a close game as Jackson sat.
For the most part, Reid put up with Jackson's antics because he helped him win games. Chip Kelly has made a different decision. Kelly believes he can run a team without jerks on it. He'll take his chances without Jackson's talent and win with men who buy into his program.
Yet when you compare Jackson's behavior to what Philadelphia did, it is Jackson who actually looks more professional, in every way, than the team.
On the same day Jackson was released, an innuendo-filled piece about Jackson's supposed gang ties appeared in the press. The Eagles didn't comment. I believe the Eagles knew, as anyone with half a brain did, that Jackson was not in a gang. But they let that story sit and stew. They used the story as a sort of cover for their decision.
They let Jackson go because they didn't like his antics. It had nothing to do with gangs.
The problem with the story was it simplified a complicated topic. The phrase "gang ties" is used purposefully. It's muddying and somewhat racially charged. Gang ties means maybe he has friends in a gang. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's actually in a gang. Maybe he isn't. Maybe I'm Denzel Washington. Maybe I'm not.
The truth about NFL players and gang affiliations is complicated. Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman, one of the smartest people I've ever met, breaks down the topic brilliantly. I've written extensively on gangs and athletes, and there are almost no NFL players in gangs. A few may have been at one point but few, if any, are now.
What is true is that Jackson and numerous other NFL players—and we're talking hundreds of them—come from neighborhoods where there are gangs. There is initially an awkward coexistence, then a mutually beneficial one. The gangs respect the athletes and basically protect them so the athletes can get out of the harsh neighborhoods and into the pros. The athletes appreciate the fact the gangs leave them alone and never forget the help they received.
This doesn't mean NFL players back gangs or support them or are in them.
Not a single team that I contacted said Jackson was in a gang, or even had ties to one. Not a single person in the NFL believes that. There are teams that don't like Jackson's attitude, but not a single one believes in the "DeSean in the Hood" meme.
Do you think Washington would give $16 million guaranteed to a player who is in a gang? Do you think NFL Security, the league's investigative arm, wouldn't know if Jackson was in a gang? Trust me, it would. If there was any tangible proof of serious gang ties, Jackson would not be on the field.
If Jackson flashes gang signs, that's wrong. But if Jackson, as Sherman said, tries to help them get out of gangs, and show them a different way, this is honorable.
Sherman also makes two smart points. He wrote:
The Seattle Seahawks get it. The Philadelphia Eagles apparently do not. This offseason they re-signed a player who was caught on video screaming, "I will fight every n---a here." He was representing the Philadelphia Eagles when he said it, because, of course, everything we do is reflective of the organization. But what did they do to Riley Cooper, who, if he’s not a racist, at least has "ties" to racist activity? They fined him and sent him to counseling. No suspension necessary for Cooper and no punishment from the NFL, despite its new interest in policing our use of the N-word on the field. Riley instead got a few days off from training camp and a nice contract in the offseason, too.
The second, relating to Jim Irsay checking into a rehab clinic after his arrest for driving under the influence and drug possession: "Commit certain crimes in this league and be a certain color, and you get help, not scorn."
The Eagles' stealthy manipulation of a complicated gang story is far worse than anything Jackson has done. The fact Philadelphia brass has said nothing post-release is gutless.
What Kelly is doing is clear. It's the Chipster way or the highway. Kelly is brilliant, but his methodology had better work. There are numerous players in the NFL who don't always show up to meetings on time, are selfish or play for the cash. Not all, but a lot. And Kelly won't be able to exile all of them.
And there won't always be newspaper stories to hide behind.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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