We Still Have A Distance to Travel

Character is an issue at the forefront of the NFL. It has become such a hot topic that the league is taking large steps to find a solution to curtail players' actions away from the game.

In the wake of multiple arrests within the last year, all professional athletes are now fair game to deserved and unfair criticisms. If they break the rules, they should be open to all public scrutiny.

I'm not a politically-minded individual, but I learned early on in my writing career that success in the media business has a lot more to do with the breaks you get along the way instead of the talent you may possess.

Don't get me wrong - eventually the cream rises to the top - but those who have true staying power generally find a groove and settle into a position that awards them a certain level of freedom to offer their opinions on any topic. Local KC Star columnist Jason Whitlock is one such individual.

I realize not everyone agrees with his comments - or mine for that matter - but when you get into this profession, that can't be your driving force. Are some starting to go too far?

With the recent demeaning comments directed at the Rutgers Women's Basketball team by Don Imus, it really made me stop and think about how far some have regressed in sports.

Sports are there for us to enjoy so we have a distraction from the responsibilities of our regular lives. We all get caught up in the success of our teams, but sometimes we take it so far we're so willing to look the other way.

People like Imus and Howard Stern have authored comments that are both revolting and thought-provoking. But there's nothing positive about the comments Imus made towards the Rutgers players, and in the end he's probably going to lose his job. Not because of the comments, but because as a society we are driven to stand up for those that have been wronged. It's the right thing to do.

Let's face it - Imus is old school. He's lived hard and been on the pulse of politics and sports since he began broadcasting back in the 60's. But his latest comments went too far, and he admitted it. Do we bury him in the same grave as others who have been unable to control their tongues?

Imus is hardly alone. Jimmy The Greek, Howard Cosell and hundreds of other writers, columnists, politicians and radio personalities have spoken inappropriately about all walks of life in sports.

What does this have to do with the NFL and the players in the league that have added a new column – the one counting their arrests - to the box score?

Everything!

We forgive NFL players for their off-the-field transgressions because they score touchdowns and make big plays. Our greed to win overrides the shortcomings of these players. We need to have the same standards for everyone, regardless if they play the sport or report on it.

The NFL realizes their fan base is the key, but their job is difficult. They must keep the aggression of their gladiators confined within the sidelines so as not to alienate the fans. The NFL is by far the most violent sport in the world.

You really have to be nuts to play the sport and as fans, we recognize that. That's why we sometimes ignore the off-the-field troubles and just accept it as par for the course.

But that's about to change.

New Commissioner Roger Goodell is dead on in his attempt to clean up the antics of players like Pacman Jones. He's asked owners and players for their opinions. He's listened to the fans, read the police reports and realizes changes must be made or the sport will be ruined.

Goodell took the first step on Tuesday by suspending Bengals' wide receiver Chris Henry for eight games and Jones for the entire 2007 season.
Hopefully a new standard is being set.

In 1969, Kurt Flood set a precedent by fighting Major League Baseball to become the sport's first true free agent. His fight laid the groundwork for players to move freely in all sports, not just baseball. He stood his ground and fought the establishment all the way to the Supreme Court.

Goodell adopted the same stance, taking a page from the late Pete Rozelle, who had the guts to suspend Alex Karras and Paul Horning for gambling in 1963. Goodell made an example of Jones in particular. Unless both players adhere to the rules of their suspensions they may not be reinstated.

CBS and MSNBC, who syndicate the Don Imus show to millions of people, should do the same. It'll cost them serious coin, but it's the right thing to do.

We have to be consistent when we feel someone has crossed the line and we can't just react when this happens – we need to take steps to prevent it.

For those of us who worship the NFL, we can only hope they'll set the precedent for the rest of the sports world - even if it costs them some fans or pushes the relationship with the players to the brink of a total collapse.

If they don't, another Don Imus will spew more stupid comments and throw around insults aimed at gathering ratings. Even more players will get arrested due to overly lenient penalties.

We all have enough reminders of the grinds of daily life already. If the sanctuary of sports is burst, eventually we'll simply stop listening and watching altogether.

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