Big time players, big time scandals: Does character matter when legacy is on the line?

Henry Schweber

There is a major issue in today’s NFL that has severely impacted the league so many have grown to love. No, it’s not about the excess pass interference penalties, or the lack of defense being played, this is something much more serious. This is about the overall lack of character shown in the NFL. As an NFL player, you have extremely high expectations. You must be able to predict what the opposing team is trying to do, account for every player on the field and put your body through some grueling things in order to make it. What isn’t brought up often enough, however, is what these players do off the field.

When we talk about an athlete’s “character” we tend to only focus on how their character relates to their athletic performance. For example, we praise these athletes for having a “killer instinct,” “being a vocal leader” or “great teammate,” but we rarely talk about the aspect of their character that really matters… are they a good person.

For those who say that athletes have no obligation to be a role model for young children—that their hard work on the field should be enough—consider the fact that these players are the faces of multi-billion dollar brands and an even more profitable business. Kids idolize these players, whether they like it or not. If kids are so heavily influenced by the actions of a particular player or brand in the NFL, these athletes need consequences for their actions. That includes the person many people think to be the golden boy of the NFL, Peyton Manning.

New details regarding a 20-year-old sexual harassment accusation from Manning’s time as a student at the University of Tennessee resurfaced this past week, just after Manning’s super bowl win for the Broncos. Many have quickly come to his defense, dismissing the allegations and continuing to heap praise onto Manning. When the question “Will this affect his legacy?” is asked, the answer will most likely be no.

It seems that people do not necessarily care about Manning’s past and their opinions haven’t really been altered by what is being broadcast by the media. When you look at the history of the NFL and some of the crimes committed by its players, you see that the man’s character rarely had anything to do with his legacy. Some may argue that the NFL does care about previous acts, pointing to Ray Rice as their example.

After a video surfaced of Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious in an elevator, the Baltimore Ravens promptly released him and he has yet to find a team willing to sign him. People may point to this as a sign of progress, but keep in mind that Rice’s play on the football field was deteriorating in recent seasons, and that has more to do with his inability to get signed than his past domestic abuse.

Others have had their passed digressions overlooked by teams and were resigned (or never even cut) right away: Greg Hardy, Michael Vick, Adam “Pacman” Jones and James Harrison, to name only a few. With all of these instances of abuse and harassment, it’s clear that there is some sort of character problem in the NFL.

That’s why it’s so important for coaches and other executives to model former NFL coach Tom Coughlin. Players spoke out after Coughlin stepped down from the New York Giants expressing how much he meant to them not only on the football field, but off of it as well. After news of his resignation broke, defensive end Justin Tuck posted a heartfelt message on Instagram saying that Coughlin “helped me become a better man” and “challenged all of the players to be better husbands and fathers.” Tom Coughlin knew that the way to get the most out of a person was to treat them like a person—to accept them as individuals and to recognize that each specific person had their own character.

The unfortunate reality is that this is a rarity in the NFL. Players are taught since day one to be more physical and to talk trash. With the presence of violence so prevalent in the NFL, it leads us to question whether or not there is something we can do to change the football culture while still keeping the game we know and love intact.