Little by little.
That’s how the erosion of good things happens. And before you know it, fertile soil turns into a dust bowl.
I’m not talking about farming here. So it goes in the world of professional sports.
Just ask the Indiana Pacers. Pacers owner Herb Simon, Pacers Sports and Entertainment President Jim Morris and basketball operations boss Larry Bird deserve a ton of credit for rebuilding from the post-brawl ashes. But it has been a lot more difficult to rebuild the Blue and Gold than it was to tear it down. And truth be told, the Pacers are still climbing out of the sinkhole the franchise fell into after a series of unseemly incidents involving the team’s players.
Two years of entertaining playoff basketball plus a ton of community involvement have helped the Pacers earn the community’s trust back.
The Indianapolis Colts, and the entire NFL along with them, are staring into the same chasm the Pacers were a few years back. It’s up to the Colts—players and management—to build a bridge and cross this divide or fall headlong into a pit of despair.
I know, the NFL is the pinnacle of U.S. professional sports. It’s a tremendous money-making machine with even small-market franchises like the Colts knocking down $40 million or more in profits each year.
But it’s not bulletproof. Little by little, one seemingly small misdeed on top of another, and the erosion begins.
This week, Colts safety Joe Lefeged marched into a Washington, D.C., courtroom wearing an orange jumpsuit. It’s not a pretty image. The 25-year-old was picked up last week on gun-related charges. Reportedly, a loaded gun and drugs were involved. The Colts so far have stayed mum on the matter, letting it play out in court before deciding what to do with Lefeged.
This is not an isolated incident. Lefeged’s arrest comes in the wake of the high-profile murder case involving New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
I’m not about to say the Colts have a roster of criminals. Far from it. But neither is this the first legal dust-up involving a Colt in recent years.
This sort of thing is becoming an even bigger problem for the NFL. A comprehensive list is difficult to come by, but by most counts, 39 NFL players have been arrested this year. It’s fair to point out that’s less than 3 percent of all NFL players. Again, there are a lot of good men playing in the NFL. Unfortunately, there are some bad ones, too.
A few too many for the image of the NFL and teams like the Colts. There’s no way to get around it. Just looking at the list of players arrested since the lights went out on the most recent Super Bowl is enough to send shivers up a sports marketer's spine. These are the criminal allegations, unfortunately, that grab headlines.
Michael Boley, New York Giants (Feb. 8): child abuse in Alabama.
Da’Quan Bowers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Feb. 18): possession of firearm in New York City’s LaGuardia Airport.
Al Netter, San Francisco 49ers (Feb. 22): DUI in California.
Desmond Bryant, Cleveland Browns (Feb. 24): criminal mischief in Miami.
J’Marcus Webb, Chicago Bears (Feb. 24): possession of marijuana in Illinois.
Javarris Lee, Arizona Cardinals (March 7): failure to appear in court in Florida.
Quinton Carter, Denver Broncos (March 9): cheating at craps in Las Vegas.
Cody Grimm, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (March 10 and May 28): public intoxication twice in Virginia.
Evan Rodriguez, Chicago Bears (March 21 and May 31): resisting arrest and DUI in Miami.
Trumaine Johnson, St. Louis Rams (March 22): DUI in Montana.
Brandon Barden, Tennessee Titans (March 23): DUI in Georgia.
Amari Spivey, Detroit Lions (March 27): assault on girlfriend in Connecticut.
William Moore, Atlanta Falcons (April 18): simple battery in Atlanta.
Rolando McClain, Baltimore Ravens (April 22): disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in Alabama.
Ronnell Lewis, Detroit Lions (April 23): bar fighting in Oklahoma.
Quentin Groves, Cleveland Browns (April 24): solicitation of prostitute in Ohio.
Cliff Harris, New York Jets (May 2): possession of marijuana in New Jersey.
Claude Davis, New York Jets (May 2): possession of marijuana in New Jersey.
Daryl Washington, Arizona Cardinals (May 3): aggravated assault on ex-girlfriend in Arizona.
Armonty Bryant, Cleveland Browns (May 6): DUI in Oklahoma.
Titus Young, free agent (May 5, twice, and May 10): DUI, rearrested for trying to steal his impounded car, then a week later burglary in Michigan.
Mike Goodson, New York Jets (May 17): drugs and gun possession in New Jersey.
Joe Morgan, New Orleans Saints (May 29): DUI in Louisiana.
Pacman Jones, Cincinnati Bengals (June 11): assault after punching a woman in Cincinnati.
Jason Peters, Philadelphia Eagles (June 12): street racing and high-speed chase involving police.
Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots (June 26): murder and gun charges in Massachusetts.
Ausar Walcott, Cleveland Browns (June 26): attempted murder in New Jersey.
Joe Lefeged, Indianapolis Colts (June 29): gun-related charges.
NFL team owners, general managers and scouts can’t be expected to screen out every potential problem player. But some of the guys making the police blotter have come with enough red flags to hold a parade at the Kremlin.
Hernandez is chief among those. And if a team with leadership as smart and savvy as the Patriots iswilling to take a gamble on a player like Hernandez, that says something about the NFL’s state of mind.
The Pacers learned the hard way that you can’t take a win-at-all-costs mentality, especially in this market. And Simon handed down the marching orders a few years back to fill the roster with not only guys who can play, but good-quality people. No exception. Bird has followed through on those orders, and it’s paid off.
In two months' time, Lefeged could be in training camp preparing for his third season with the Colts. I’m all for innocent until proven guilty. But that’s not the way it works in the court of public opinion. The truth is, innocent or guilty, the Colts’ image has already been dinged.
And at some point when those dings turn into a big dent, NFL and Colts fans may wonder whom they’re cheering for. They may wonder whose poster their child has on the wall. They may look at the list above and not like the answer staring back at them.