‘Character Issues’ Require A Different Approach In Professional Sports

One issue that stood front and center for me during the 2015 NFL draft was the preponderance of draftees with character issues. Sports analysts rightfully question the sincerity of teams, including the Buffalo Bills, regarding how they intend to handle players coming into the NFL with less than stellar moral compasses.

What is abundantly clear from observing comments made by various representatives of teams is that ‘character issues’ are operationally defined and handled differently, and in a rather murky fashion these days. Multi-billion dollar organizations are haphazardly putting together programs to “address these problems”, and yet they often fail to address these issues from a team and organizational perspective.

Wut. If you’re used to my ‘wyobabble’, you probably already know that it’s time to find something else to read if you’re not in the mood for my silliness. However, this post is actually one I’m dead serious about with regard to how the NFL and each of its teams deal with players labeled as having ‘character issues’.

We all know the mantra from every front office in the NFL regarding their due diligence in assessing players likelihood for behavioral issues that may affect their ability to stay out of jail and on the field. However, the 2015 NFL draft was somewhat unique, with a significant number of ‘character issues’ being flagged for first round talent and continuing throughout the draft.

Arguably the biggest and most grievous error the NFL and teams make with respect to “handling these issues” is about HOW they go about doing so. As a retired psychotherapist it strikes me as interesting that they approach these issues and brag about how they deal with each one on a “case by case” basis. Really?

Talk about missing the forest for the trees. I guess at this point in my career I shouldn’t be surprised that billion dollar corporations fail to see the big picture and address it in a cogent manner as a whole. I wish I had a giant megaphone right now. I would blast out a great big, D-U-H.

I learned a great deal working for a Fortune 500 company during one of several of my career incarnations during the 1980s. Part of that process involved studying organizational psychology, which eventually led to graduate work and subsequent practice of cognitive behavioral therapy over the course of about 20 years.

During that time, what I learned about group dynamics and therapy in that professional setting allowed me to develop some effective strategies in dealing with family dysfunction as a therapist. Family therapy is not unlike what we prescribe as organizational consultants working with corporations. For example, football fans and even players talk about the team being a “fam”. We have our own BillsMafia right here that is all about the FAMbase.org (check it out).

Naturally, as we know with any family (group), there are issues that affect each individual member that may or may not be in sync with the rest of the group. So, if we believe and support the notion of family (group), then we also must acknowledge the unique factors that affect group function as a whole, right? Huh?

What the heck does group therapy have to do with players with character issues in the NFL today? A lot, as it turns out, and probably even more as time goes on. We already experienced the first draft when a player was suddenly being interviewed regarding a murder investigation only days before the draft took place.

It’s certainly not the last time a multi-billion dollar enterprise will face this type of situation. However, what is shocking to this old group therapist is how many multi-billion dollar organizations fail to consider the effect that this type of behavior has on the organization as a whole (group) in a number of different contexts.

1dareusFor example, what are the implications for the Buffalo Bills if Marcell Dareus ends up being suspended for two games by the league as punishment regarding the legal issues he faced last year? How much do you think Dareus’ absence for the opener against the Indianapolis Colts and the next game at home against the Patriots might affect the ability of the team to win both games? You’re in denial if you think it doesn’t have material impact on both of those important games.

What is my point (duh)? In football matters, the type of “character issue” a player is facing is less material to the issue than the effect it has on the team’s ability to win games. In other words, a team suffers whether someone stole crab legs, raced cars, smoked dope, or committed homicide.

Gasp. Really? Yes, really. It is not the fiduciary responsibility of teams to change the personal behavior of their players . However, it IS in their best interest to keep players out of jail and on the field. To that extent, the moral compass stays on track with societal goals for promoting the development of “good” citizens.

It’s apparent the Pegula era of ownership in sports promotes an open approach to rewarding players in need of character rehabilitation by paying them lucrative contracts to come and do so while playing the game they love. This is a not only a noble approach, but a potentially rewarding one for them if the majority of ‘troubled’ players pan out and become great contributors to the team’s success.

If in the process these individuals become ‘better people’ along the way, all the better. The Pegulas are to be applauded for their willingness to promote forgiveness and accountability to the whole. Now I would love to see this be addressed in the paradigm of the whole as well, rather than in the piece-meal “case by case” basis only.

I had a real epiphany as a Bills fan after thinking about Richie Incognito after he joined the Bills. I was trying to figure out exactly what the goal was in bringing him in, until I saw his first interview after joining the team. My jaws literally dropped after that interview, and that doesn’t happen very often anymore.

Either Richie is the best actor I’ve ever seen, or he has done some seriously good work on himself as a result of the fiasco he was involved with in Miami. Oh, and which by the way, “bullygate” was a perfect example regarding why NFL franchises need an organizational coach to mediate and prevent situations like what happened there a couple of years ago in the first place. Double duh.

My point is that the Pegulas are leading the way in terms of showing by example how people of great wealth can spend it in unique ways to make the world a better place. Through the paradigm of football, they are teaching us important life lessons about investing in forgiveness, no matter the deed.

However, it would be far more effectively implemented if that vision were represented throughout the franchise with the goal of enhancing group cohesiveness. The philosophy and science of group dynamics has been studied intensely for decades. It is rooted in the fabric of societies going back hundreds of years.

The Pegulas have hinted via the media that they are still interested in hiring a ‘czar’ of football that would serve as a mentor and representative of the organization’s long term goals. Instead of hiring another football operations mind, they should hire an organizational consultant that comes a lot cheaper, and is specifically tasked with promoting the Pegulas ownership mission :)

The only thing that could possibly drag me out of retirement would be to have a chance at at that job. Talk about a dream job for a lifelong Bills fan. My ‘wyobabble’ version of “fantasy football” would be to study an organization like the Bills from the inside and promote group cohesiveness in an organizational paradigm. That would be the ultimate check on this Bills fan’s bucket list.

Since that’s likely to happen only in my dreams, I will continue to preach it from my little patch of land in Wyoming anyway. The time has come to use our love of sports in society as a vehicle for promoting pro-social behaviors, and to do so in a systematic fashion.

The problems in our society that lead to the development of ‘character issues’ in its citizens are not going to go away. Furthermore, dealing with them by using a piecemeal approach completely ignores their cumulative effect on group function. Time for some innovative thinking and creative initiatives! Go Bills.

About Robyn Mundy

Robyn Mundy is Editor-in-Chief of the BillsMafia blog at BillsMafia.com. She's a retired oncology nurse & psychotherapist who loves to write about her life-long passion for the Buffalo Bills, and occasionally something of clinical or social relevance. Robyn lives with her husband Gary and their dogs in the foothills of the glorious Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. Robyn is also a proud founding sponsor. Follow her on Twitter at @robynmundyWYO.