On sanctimony and the character of young men

I'm not really a contrarian.  In fact, I think people who are contrary just to be contrary are typically worthless to an intelligent discussion.  Incessant devil's advocacy just gets in the way of progress.  Actually, if you ask some people who've begun frequenting this site recently, I am a big homer, and all I do is write happy, sunshiny stuff about how the Broncos can do no wrong.  Of course, that doesn't take into account the fact that I was the first person to criticize Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders for misplaying the initial Cassel trade discussions, but that's neither here nor there, I suppose.

I wanted to write about character, because I have about had it with all the sanctimony surrounding the topic.  Character.  It's like it's become an unchangeable physiological attribute, like stiff hips, or thin legs, or small hands.  It's evidently so clear-cut that a grinning, know-nothing jackass like Trey Wingo can casually say that Percy Harvin has character issues on national television.  It's tawdry, like a soap opera.  "Can they possibly take him with his character issues?"

I believe that the United States has a draconian cultural approach to crime and punishment.  Every culture agrees that its members shouldn't steal from, kill, or injure its other members.  In the U.S., we go crazy about some other stuff too, particularly criminalizing the use and possession of drugs.  There are more people incarcerated in the U.S. right now for drug offenses than there are incarcerated in the entire European Union for all crimes combined.  You have to remember that the E.U. has 100 million more people than the United States.  That shocked me when I first heard that, and it still makes no sense to me, to this day.

There is also very little sentiment in the U.S. calling for the humane treatment of prisoners, or any substantive improvement to prison education, counseling, or other rehabilitative services.  How many times have you heard a friend say "I hope that guy gets raped every day in prison."  How many times have you said or thought something similar yourself?  Think about what that's saying.

When we speak of the Department of Corrections, we're basically lying to ourselves.  Inherently, it seems that we view the true purposes of incarceration to be punishment, and segregation from law-abiding society, rather than modification of future behavior.  It's a lazy-father attitude, one which says that if a person can't "learn his lesson" just from being in prison, then there's no helping him.  It's like sending a kid to his room, so you don't have to take the time, or expend the effort, to actively teach him how and why to behave better.

In this country, the attitude seems to be that if a person commits a crime, then he should forever be known as a criminal.  There should be no credence given to the idea that a person can change, or that the past transgressions of a changed person should be forgiven. 

You can probably tell what my value judgment is on thinking like this, but the purpose of this is not to explicitly announce that value judgment, or to try to sway anybody to see things my way, or, frankly, to even invite any discussion of it.  I think what I think about penology and sociology, and everybody else is free to think what they think.  I encourage everybody to debate the merits on Daily Kos, Red State, or wherever else such heavy public-policy discussion may be more appropriate.

The purpose of talking about these topics is simply to set a backdrop for a discussion of the character of football players.  There must be an examination of our own attitudes if we're to understand the world in a more enlightened way.  Frankly, I am showing a great deal of faith in this community, to invest the large amount of time it will take me to write this.  I think that this group is mature enough to disagree with me on some or all background points, but still to consider what I have to say relating to football.

So, on to football.  Percy Harvin is my example today, because he's exceptionally dangerous with a football in his hands, yet he went 22nd in this weekend's Draft.  I'm a Florida Gators football fan.  One thing I know is that Urban Meyer is not a coddler of players.  He's actually a lot like his friend Bill Belichick, in that he expects players to act like men, and that he rarely hands out compliments very easily.  The Gators stomped Knowshon Moreno's Georgia Bulldogs this past season, 49-10, and Meyer found fault with the second-string defense allowing that late TD.  Meyer brings in a ton of talent every year, and there's always a replacement if somebody needs to be shown the door.  There was absolutely no indication of any trouble with Percy Harvin during his three years at Florida.  He had some minor trouble in high school, and he failed a marijuana test at the Combine, which was really foolish of him.  But in a structured environment like the one at Florida, there was not a peep. 

Remember, Meyer kicked his best player, our own Marcus Thomas, off the team in 2006 for violating the terms of a behavior agreement with the coaching staff.  He went to Disney World with some friends, and he had agreed not to leave campus at all.  Good-bye, best player on the team.  That team, of course, went on to win a National Championship that season by stomping the bejesus out of Ohio State.  I have to speculate that respecting the coach for his decision to stick to his guns played a factor.  Harvin was a freshman on that team, and scored a TD in that game.

I was watching the NFL Network on Saturday a few hours before the Draft started, and the discussion turned to Harvin.  How could he be dumb enough to fail a drug test?  Deion Sanders said the most useful thing I've ever heard him say. 

"I know the NFL is writing our paychecks, but 30% of the League is smoking."  Of course it is.  When I was in the Navy, 30% of the guys on my ship were smoking, but I'll get to that later.

Here's an important question, in my mind.  Do we have a moral objection to a player smoking weed, or getting in a fight as a freshman, or getting arrested for public drunkenness as a junior, or is the concern that the guy is going to mess up again, and get suspended, and cause the team to lose games by his absence?  If it's the second choice, then you're not really worried about character, you're worried about risk management vis-à-vis potential suspensions.  I can get behind that thinking.  I don't want a player to be getting suspended, and I will factor the increased likelihood of it into an evaluation.  I won't say the guy has bad character though, because I don't know him.

What is character, really?  Is it an unchanging attribute?  Are you born with a certain one, and it is what is?  Is it dependent upon the past circumstances in your life, and can it be affected by future circumstances?  I believe that a person's character changes all the time.  I don't want to get into the theories of Sigmund Freud or Erich Fromm very much, because it's very complex stuff, and I'm not as conversant in it as somebody who studied a lot of psychology.  It would be like somebody who only knows a little bit about the X's and O's of defense trying to get really technical, when that's best left to a person like HT.

I will instead offer myself as an example.  When I was 22 years old, I would have definitely had a character red flag.  My circumstances made my character what it was.  When I was about 13, my parents' always-unhealthy marriage devolved further, and they stopped talking to each other, but continued to live in the same house with us.  They finally got divorced when I was 16, after not really speaking for 3 years.  Rather than having been encouraged to achieve to my personal potential (by going to Columbia, or Yale, or Harvard, like some of my intellectually-comparable high school classmates did), I got lost in the shuffle.  In a family that's falling apart, everybody just tries to survive the carnage for themselves, and that included both of my parents.  I was on my own, like everybody else.

I got angry and started doing stupid and self-destructive things.  I was arrested six times between the ages of 16 and 18, for a variety of minor offenses.  (I have no criminal record, and I was never convicted of anything, thanks to some good luck, and one Prosecutor whose son was my father's Sunday School student.)  I was drinking excessively, and taking some illegal substances here and there, and chasing a lot of easy women.  Angry stuff, running the streets, and not really caring about anything very much.

I frequented Keene State College for a year, which is a party school in southwestern New Hampshire.  I had time to do everything except go to class.  From there, I landed in the Navy's prestigious Nuclear Power training program, with my best friend from Keene.  My father was a nuclear engineer in the Navy, and it seemed like a great way to redeem myself.  Alas, I failed out of the program, because I still couldn't bring myself to do the right things.  My best friend, Jason Lake, got kicked out of the Navy while still in the Nuke program, over some drug stuff.  (Jason subsequently died in a perfectly innocent car accident in 1997, at the age of 20, and I still miss him and think about him to this day.)

I ended up in the Deck division on the USS Spruance (DD-963,) in the Jacksonville area.  As a guy who was always a Smart Kid, I initially resented being sent to do work which required a fairly small amount of thinking, and a large amount of manual labor.  (It turned out great for me, actually, because I learned a lot of common sense stuff that Smart Kids who fly straight never get to learn.)

In August of 1997, I smoked some hashish out of a soda can on a beach in Theoule-Sur-Mer, France.  Somebody smelled it on me and a friend, and he turned us in.  Eventually, 8 more guys got caught up in it, because the guy who sold us the hash gave up a bunch of names to keep himself out of federal prison on an international smuggling charge.

The Captain went out on a limb, and didn't kick six of us out of the Navy, even though he was supposed to under the Navy's zero-tolerance policy.  We were in the middle of a deployment, and he would have had a serious staffing problem in the Deck division.  Those of us who were retained became known as The Cartel.  We all got otherwise hammered to the fullest extent of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, though.  We were confined to the ship for 45 days, we had to do 45 days extra duty, we got busted back a pay-grade, and had our incomes reduced to practically nothing for 2 months.  We also had to show up 5 times a day (8 AM, 11 AM, 4 PM, 6 PM, and 9:30 PM,) just to be counted, even if it was during our scheduled sleep time, which is just ruthless.  For all intents and purposes, we were incarcerated for a month and a half.  We were also told that if we got in trouble again, for anything at all, we'd be separated from the Navy with Other-Than-Honorable Discharges.

Five of the six of us eventually met their demise in that way, one for something as minor as having his tongue pierced.  The other four got busted for smoking pot again.  I kept smoking it too, and just never got caught for it a second time.  I got in some other trouble twice more, and got saved by some Chiefs who liked me the first time, and the Executive Officer (second in command on the ship) the second time.  Being a generally likable and engaging guy was my salvation, I guess.

When I got clear of the 3rd offense, I was 21, about to turn 22.  I was just entering my fourth year in the Navy, and my job performance in the first three was mediocre at best.  I had spent a lot of time sneaking off to take naps in aft steering.  In the Navy, out of sight is often out of mind.  I had to reconcile my mediocre performance with the fact that I didn't consider myself to be a mediocre person.  It had to be one thing or another.  I made a key decision at that time, which has affected the rest of my life since then.

I decided that I was going to work hard, and finally apply myself.  I quit smoking weed, and focused on getting qualified to take on new responsibilities and get promoted.  People didn't believe it at first.  I was the guy who never gave a crap, and at the flip of a switch, I turned into a hard charger.  They started calling me S**t-hot Ted, derisively at first, because they were sure I was running a con.

It was no con though.  I became the youngest and lowest-ranking person in ship history to get qualified as a Rig Captain for underway refueling.  See video here, if you're interested.  The person in yellow is the Rig Captain, and is in charge of the rig, as the name would indicate.  It's a very complex and dangerous evolution, and if you're not careful and decisive, you can easily have somebody get killed.  I got promoted to E-4 by scoring in the 99th percentile on the Navy-wide test, and I finished my Surface Warfare Specialist qualification (which is a huge deal) seven weeks before I got out of the Navy.  The aforementioned nickname, which was originally meant in a derogatory way, came to be said only with respect.  I went out with an Honorable discharge, on a very strong note in April of 2000, at the age of 22.

So imagine that story, only with me as a football player.  I was a very talented guy coming out of high school, but I'd had some minor legal trouble, bad grades, and inconsistency on the field.  An FBS (formerly Division 1-A) school took a flier on me, on talent, but I red-shirted, and kept getting in trouble and had bad grades there.  They asked me to leave after one year, because they don't need guys who won't fly straight.  I re-materialized at an FCS (formerly Division 1-AA) school, and had 3 mediocre seasons, with average grades, but some more trouble, including one fairly major drug-related incident, which drew a team suspension.  In my senior year, I stopped getting in any trouble at all, did really well in school, played at an All-American level on the field, and graduated.

Do I get drafted, or am I more trouble than I am worth?  Do I have character issues?  I guarantee that everybody with a voice or a keyboard would have said that I did have serious character issues.  Mel Kiper would have hated me, and called me a one-year wonder.  Adam Schein, who is my Future Crow-Eater of the Day (for giving the Broncos an unequivocal F in the 2009 Draft), would have hollered in his inimitable North Jersey voice that I was unworthy of being drafted, as if he knew something about anything.

That was April of 2000 for me.  Now, switching back to my real life, I've graduated from college twice with Bachelors degrees, and quickly advanced in my career as a corporate finance professional.  I'm recognized as a young leader in my company.  I've never been in any legal trouble or done any drugs since those wayward Navy days.  I grew up to be a social drinker who knows his limits, and a good all-around citizen and person.  I write quality stuff on this website, for no compensation, because I want to add value to a terrific community of Broncos fans.

To switch back to the football analogy, I've been a very good player for nine years now, and I've rewarded the team which gave me a chance many times over.  Unless I tell people, nobody would guess that I used to be so troubled.  I've always been a good person, but my character is different at age 31 than it was at 16, 18, 22, 25, or 28.  Like anybody, I've grown, and developed, and learned new things, and had new experiences.

You don't know the character of any of these football players, and neither do I.  You only know their stats and their rap sheets.  Those are indicators of what may happen in the future, but our futures are mostly what we choose to make them.  Some of these red-flagged guys turn out to be good people, like Marcus Thomas, who was recognized by the FBI last year for his great work with the National ID program.  Some turn out to be intransigent like Lawrence Phillips or Maurice Clarett, and become guests of the state.  You can make an educated guess who's who, but you never really know.

Most teams put a lot of resources into trying to determine who's worth the risk, and how much risk they're worth.  Those evaluations occur on an individual basis.  Some teams, most notably the Patriots, aren't very averse to so-called character risks, because they figure that their program and team culture keeps players on the straight and narrow.  They're happy to buy low.  It has worked out well for them with many players.  The teams (seemingly other than Cincinnati and Oakland) know more than we do, and should be trusted.

I'll leave with maybe the key question of all of this.  How fair is it for you, given your own personal situation, to expect kids from very different situations than yours, to have never made a mistake?  It seems to me that when we say somebody has good character, that's another way of saying that he behaves in the same way that we do.  We're therefore making ourselves the model for good behavior and moral uprightness, and is any of us really that?  Kids screw up, and it's not fair for me to criticize mistakes when I made the same ones, just because it's been a decade since I made them.  I believe those who did make mistakes can stop making them, because I'm a person who did. 

So, remember that, and reconcile it with some player you don't know, the next time you feel the instinct to say that he has bad character.  That was me in 2000, and you have an idea, nine years later, of how I turned out.  Most people aren't irredeemable.  Every day can be a new day, and when we give a person the chance to pleasantly surprise us, and the encouragement and support to keep doing the right things, we can be rewarded in amazing ways.

Originally posted at MHR

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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