DeSean Jackson and the Economics of Controversy

It’s probably as important as anything else here to say that DeSean Jackson signed a 5-year, $47 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2012 offseason. The richest season of the deal would have been the upcoming 2014 season, when he would have been due over $10 million. DeSean Jackson is indubitably very good at playing football, in spite of his constant, sometimes humorous, sometimes confusing antics. He made the Pro Bowl last year. He’s really fast. The Eagles knew that Jackson was prone to fits of interesting behavior when they signed him to the aforementioned contract, so for all the world to see, Jackson would remain an Eagle for the foreseeable future, right?

Seeing as the Eagles are not at all an organization with a history of employing controversial players, it only made sense that they would release Jackson from his contract for allegedly having ties to California gang members. It’s just the Eagles way of doing things. In that sense, they are true disciples of the famous “Patriot Way” in New England. Because they did the correct and morally sound thing in cutting Jackson, the Eagles also freed up millions in cap room and were absolved of paying the majority of the remainder of his deal. They lose a star receiver, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to sleep at night knowing that you’re providing the paying customer with a roster full of wholesome, apple-pie-eating Americans who play the game the right way.

As you probably know, Eagles receiver Riley Cooper is a fan of country music megastar Kenny Chesney. That’s not even the whole story of why you shouldn’t like him. Cooper is such a fan of Chesney that he wanted to get backstage at his July 2013 Philadelphia concert. He wasn’t supposed to be back there, so some venue personnel kept him out. Then things got increasingly unpleasant, and Cooper was famously filmed flinging racial slurs and threatening the guards with violence. Unsurprisingly, this video was of great interest to the Internet, which values freakouts by public figures nearly as much as it loves Neil DeGrasse Tyson and nudity (never at once, unless those are getting leaked anytime soon). Also unsurprisingly, the backlash surrounding a very wealthy man yelling epithets at low-paid event staff was not positive. It seemed as if Cooper would be cut. He was, at best, the third best receiver on the roster and simply wasn’t worth the PR headache. That was until later in July, when solid #2 receiver Jeremy Maclin tore his ACL and was ruled out for the entire 2013 season. Soon enough after that, instead of unemployment, Cooper was whisked off to “counseling” because he was suddenly a needed Eagle. He wound up having a career year. Cooper’s 2013 salary? $630,000.

Although I’m sure Cooper magically found a new respect for racial tolerance during his counseling stint, DeSean Jackson will not get to go to “alleged tenuous association with gang members” rehab. If Riley Cooper had missed the Kenny Chesney concert, but had instead had some pictures snapped of him throwing up gang signs with known criminals on the same night in July 2013, and Jeremy Maclin had still gotten knocked out for the whole year, I am convinced that he’d be doing Philly-area PSAs on staying in school and not falling in with bad influences right now. It boils down to money and necessity: The Eagles decided that they needed cap flexibility more than they needed Jackson’s play and outsized personality in the locker room.

Whether it was a calculated financial move, spiteful, or both, the Eagles kicking Jackson off the team has been tied to his association with some people alleged to have committed murders. One even rapped for a record label he owns, called Jaccpot records (it is a known Crip spelling convention to replace all instances of ‘ck’ in words with ‘cc’, and even I knew that, so the Eagles must have). It is important to say that Jackson himself has never been convicted of a crime or even arrested. The NFL is peppered with dozens of players with criminal records, many of whom continue to be on the same team as they were at the time of their arrest. (In fact, five Eagles have been arrested in the last three years) for doing actual illegal things themselves! Granted, none of the relatively petty crimes they committed (drag racing, disorderly conduct, racing in drag, etc.) necessarily get anyone’s blood boiling, but they may have been enough of a reason for release if the players involved were deemed non-essential and overpaid enough.

Plenty of NFL players come from crime-ridden urban backgrounds where their high school classmates and even friends turned to gangs. Jackson, a graduate of Long Beach Polytechnic High School in California, shares an alma mater with Snoop Dogg, a very well known public figure who littered his early output with direct references to the Crips, the same gang with which Jackson is said to maintain ties. Surprisingly, no record executive seemed to care that Snoop was actually tried for murder, and that’s for one simple reason: his music was popular enough that it made enough money to justify whatever media outrage might have resulted from people’s kids being exposed to it. Understandably, in a post-Aaron Hernandez world, teams on are high alert for players who might be involved in nefarious off-the-field activities, but I have serious doubts that DeSean Jackson is the only player for whom similar connections can be asserted. More likely, however, is that no other player with such a large contract and personality issues could fall under this umbrella. It’s less about the connection in and of itself, and more about the ability to leverage it in a transaction. Some team is going to sign Jackson soon, and it may be painted as a redemption story in the media. At least when Michael Vick got his second chance, he’d sufficiently ruined his first.