Last week, the NFL made history by crossing a barrier in sexual orientation. When the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam, a prospect from nearby Mizzou, he became the first openly gay athlete to be selected in the league's annual draft.
The league, which has been stung by a bullying scandal in Miami and a pay-for-injury ring in New Orleans, might have hoped to get a boost in public relations from the Sam-Rams connection. Instead, a celebratory kiss inspired a derogatory tweet, and suddenly the league found itself in the center of controversy over its culture — and its disciplinary tactics.
After the league notified Sam of his selection, the new rookie was understandably excited. He and his boyfriend kissed each other on television, an image that was widely disseminated in the media. Either the selection or the kiss set off Miami Dolphins cornerback Don Jones, who tweeted out "OMG" and "Horrible."
Quicker than a buttonhook pattern, the Dolphins swung into action. First came the statements from the team distancing itself from Jones' comments, which were quickly deleted from his social media account. "We were disappointed to read Don's tweets," head coach Joe Philbin said in a statement, adding, "We met with Don today about respect, discrimination, and judgment." Jones, who was drafted last year, offered his own apology through the team's publicity department, saying "these tweets took away from his draft moment."
So far, so good. Jones' tweets were out of place for the event and reflected poorly on his team. But they didn't reflect as poorly as the bullying scandal from last season, when then-Dolphin Richie Incognito became a household name for his sustained, racist hazing of then-teammate Jonathan Martin, which in some reports verged on extortion. Despite numerous complaints about Incognito's on-field play — Sporting News' 2012 player poll selected him as the second-dirtiest player in the league — the November suspension in the Martin complaint was the first job action against Incognito in four years.
Oddly, though, Jones received the same penalty for his tweets. The Dolphins announced that they had fined their defensive back an "undisclosed sum," and also suspended him indefinitely pending "educational training." The local CBS affiliate in Miami described the situation as dire for Jones. "Now it's up to him," sportscaster Kim Bokamper reported, "to show the organization that he deserves an opportunity to come back and fight for his job."
Really? Over a couple of tweets?
This is no First Amendment case. Jones gets paid a lot of money to be a public figure in the league, with the full awareness of the high profile accorded his communications. The league and his team can suffer damage from careless comments, and Jones would have had to be living on a deserted island not to know the even-higher profile of Sam's draft status. Teams routinely fine players for misbehavior, so hitting Jones in the wallet over an embarrassing tweet does not constitute a free-speech crisis.
However, the extent of the punishment belies a certain hysterical need to impose political correctness on the league — one that flies in the face of all proportion. Defensive players usually have to commit multiple helmet-to-helmet attacks on defenseless opponents to even get a time-limited suspension from the league, and those plays can end careers and leave lifelong damage.
Meanwhile, trash talking during the game has practically become de rigueur for the NFL. Vaunting celebrations from the School For Talentless Mimes now follow even the most routine tackles. Players spit at each other, and as my friend Jazz Shaw pointed out, a few players in the league mocked Tim Tebow for his Christianity with fake prayer-kneeling on the field.
In other words, the players in this league spend more time taunting each other than actually playing the game. Yet the Dolphins and presumably the NFL see fit to send Jones to the re-education gulag over an ill-considered tweet far off the field, one that was not even explicitly directed at Sam.
Fox Sports' Clay Travis noted that the league is strangely inconsistent when it comes to off-field behavior, too. In February of this year, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was charged with beating his fiancée into unconsciousness in an Atlantic City casino. A grand jury handed down an indictment for third-degree aggravated assault, perhaps convinced by video footage of Rice dragging her out of an elevator, with no one else in sight. Rice has since asked for a pretrial "intervention" to avoid a conviction and a potential three-year sentence, expressing through his attorney that "he's ashamed of his conduct and he's sorry for what he did."
And yet, as Travis notes, the Ravens and the NFL have yet to do anything to Rice — even though the league has spent the last few years marketing heavily to increase its audience among women. "You get in more trouble for a tweet about men kissing on a sports television show," Travis writes, "than you do for allegedly knocking out your girlfriend and being charged with domestic assault? The message is clear: Words matter more than actions."
Perhaps the league can focus on encouraging real equality of opportunity in terms of talent and performance, rather than imposing a political-correctness standard that just substitutes an old arbitrary standard for a completely new one. Michael Sam and Don Jones both deserve the same opportunity and the same criteria to make their teams: To play well enough to make the roster, and that's it.