Double Secret Probation


In order to alter the size of the tagcloud to my left, your right, I’d like to talk about a sport that’s not baseball.

pacman.jpgOn Monday, June 4, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed down a series of suspensions for off-field misbehavior:

  • Tank Johnson, DT, Chicago Bears: for violating probation with misdemeanor firearms possession: eight games
  • Chris Henry, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: driving with a suspended license, supplying alcohol to minors: eight games
  • Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones, cornerback, Tennessee Titans: aggravated assault, inciting violence, travelling with gun-toting felons: one season

All three are appealing the suspensions.I don’t feel the least bit of remorse for either of these three. All of them are repeated delinquents: Pacman Jones has been arrested five times in two years, Henry a mere 4 times in fourteen months, and Johnson was already on probation for a firearms charge nine months earlier. Criminal charges clearly haven’t been sufficient, especially since these guys earn enough money to defend themselves out of anything short of assaulting a federal officer with rolled-up stolen missile plans.

sig229ba.jpgI have no sympathy for their plight, but I do understand how they ended up where they did. Each of these young men were earning more money in a month than I earn in a year. Tank Johnson’s suspension, for instance, is estimated to cost him $255,000, which works out to $42,500 per unregistered firearm (and you thought your hobby was expensive). College athletes at universities with strong football programs already live the life of Achilles – and that’s when they’re (technically) not allowed to be paid for their work (ha ha, wink wink). Throw $1,212,000 at me within my first two years out of college and some of it just might end up on a stage in a Vegas stripclub.

So Goodell, not wanting his beloved sport to fall afoul of the publicity issues that have plagued the kumite for years, got tough. He’s stripping them of the crowns that confer prestige, attention and, most importantly, gobs of cash. He’s also sending a message to teams like Henry’s own Bengals, who lost nine players last year to disciplinary issues.

The real test of any system of punishment is twofold: does it discourage others from the same behavior and does it prevent recidivism (“repeat offenders,” for the non-nerds reading NerdsOnSports)?

The former question we can’t answer yet. I hope, given the storm of negative publicity that’s surrounded the West Virginia alumni Henry and Jones, that the gun-toting entourages shrink at least a little bit. Maybe vanish entirely. You’re making a million dollars a year: why would you go places where you need an armed escort?

The latter question, however, will be particularly important. Take Ray Lewis, for example. Before his 2000 arrest for (ahem) murder, he was a talented but unstoried draft pick from the University of Miami. He plea bargained the charge down to obstruction of justice and got a year’s probation.

raylewis.jpgSince then, Ray’s career has been spotless. He’s gone on to become the greatest linebacker ever to play the game (8-time Pro Bowler, 2-time Defensive Player of the Year, record-setting picks and sacks). He showed up to Owings Mills on June 5 in the best shape of his life: 255 with marginal body fat. But not only is he a tremendous athlete, he’s a tremendous personality as well. He inspires his teammates to excel. He fires up and motivates everyone he plays with, which is one of the reasons why Baltimore’s defense is consistently terrifying.

At age 25, Ray Lewis could have become just another statistic: a young man travelling with the wrong crowd, caught up in a murder rap. But he got the message and he turned his life around. In thirty years people will talk about Ray Lewis the way they talk about Johnny Unitas today.

Johnson, Jones and Henry have that same chance starting next season. Let’s hope they take it.