Character Counts: An Honest Interview about Character in the NFL with George MacGregor

2007 NFL Draft

George MacGregor started with the NFL in 1968 as a human-resources temp, and has worked his way up to fan strategy & marketing intern and personal assistant to the scouts. Between making pots of coffee, taking scouts to pick up their dry cleaning, and keeping the supply room stocked with sticky pads and pens, George has a unique window into the inner workings of the NFL. I was seated next to George on a flight to Des Moines (he was on his way to move his sister into an assisted-living home). After we compared notes on the steakhouse scene in Davenport, we talked about character in the NFL.

Why is character important?

Commissioner Goodell says character is important because “we represent something that means so much to so many people.” It all comes down to marketability. Vertical leap is just isn’t very marketable. Fans care about character. If someone tries the Lambeau Leap and doesn’t quite make it, it isn’t as upsetting to fans as a player shooting someone at a club after the game.

What are some character red flags facing this year’s draft prospects?

The ones the journalists are reporting on are domestic violence charges, pushing a female student down stairs, shellfish theft, DUI, and alleged rape (there is more than one prospect with this particular issue).

Whoa, there! I’m confused. If the NFL nearly ended Ray Rice’s career over domestic violence, how could the NFL consider bringing in new players who have histories of the same behavior?

The league is not into legalistic judgmentalism when it comes to off-field performance. The NFL is way more progressive than that. Everyone deserves a second chance. Some people even deserve third, fourth, fifth, and sixth chances.

Why not Ray Rice, though? Why didn’t he get some automatic extra chances?

Well, believe me, we tried with that two-game suspension. Then the fans saw the video, and they got mad. In all honesty, it was almost a relief to come down harder on him. It appeased the fans, and, let’s face it: Rice wasn’t having a great season.

Am I hearing that football ability factors into the NFL definition of character?

Is this a serious question? Of course it does!  The only character that counts is the on-field kind.

What about the big crimes, though?

If you’re sitting in jail, like former first-round pick Rae Carruth, or Aaron Hernandez, the off-field problem is also an on-field problem. If you’re not in jail, like Ray Lewis, well, it’s just an off-field issue, and those don’t matter. The NFL knows that things can happen up in the club. The NFL has had a pretty consistent standard. Back in ‘73, Ernie Holmes shot at a police helicopter. Not a character issue at all. He didn’t retire until ‘78.

What would you say about Troy Polamalu’s character? He’s pretty much a saint, right?

He was a man of strong character until his retirement, when he placed family above football. By the NFL’s definition, that is poor character. He literally won’t be on the field anymore because of his family. In jail, at home, it doesn’t matter where you are. If you’re not on the field and you have some talent left, it’s a problem.

Wow, so valuing family is a character problem?

Yes! Anything the player values more than football can lead to a disappointing career trajectory and, therefore, can fall under the umbrella of “poor character.” Once the fans begin to understand this, the NFL can be more transparent about its player evaluation process.  Until then, we try to keep some of the real weaknesses close to the vest. The real scouting report on Ameer Abdullah mentions some major weaknesses we don’t like to talk about in the media. For starters, he has said things like “life is bigger than football,” and he believes in a non-Christian God.

Are you serious? Really??

I’m as serious as JaMarcus Russell’s Purple Drank habit!  Abdullah could go the way of Jason Worilds and retire prematurely for spiritual reasons. When scouts hear players thanking God in their post-game interviews instead of talking about giving 110% for the team, they definitely take a closer look.

So the NFL has secret scouting reports?

Always. Once we slipped up. It was the case of Myron Rolle, who was all but guaranteed to be a first-round pick until he accepted a Rhodes scholarship to study medical anthropology at Oxford. Sure, it wasn’t an ACL injury or an alleged rape keeping him off the field. But he was off the field. Studying, drinking tea, calling cookies “biscuits,” and taking Abbey Road pictures with his nerdy friends. The secret report ended up published online by mistake. Rolle is in medical school, and hopes to become a neurologist, so the scouts were on to something.

Medical school? A liability?

Yes!  Chris Borland valued neurological health over football. Who leaves after their rookie year to live “a long, healthy life”?  Who does that?!  People like Borland and Rolle, that’s who! People who care about their brains and people who know a lot about brains!

Fear of brain damage is a red flag too?

Clearly! Desire for optimal neurological functioning is a huge, huge, huge character problem. Borland’s secret report said, “His fear of brain damage may undermine his dedication and commitment to the game.” And it did!

How does the NFL find out if a player prefers not be brain damaged?

There are lots of ways. For example, does the player wear a helmet when he rides a motorcycle? When Ben Roethlisberger rode without his helmet he sent a clear message: “My brain is not very important.” That has been an asset for him. He can get his bell rung and keep on playing. I grant you, he doesn’t always play well when that happens, but at least he stayed on the field. That’s character for you! Is there footage of the player butting heads with a teammate after a good play? If he’s only into high fives, jumping around, and yelling “That’s how you do it!,” you have to ask why. If a player mentions cerebral discomfort, it’s Red Flag City.

I don’t think the general public is ready for this new take on character.

The NFL would like to get to the point at which society’s standards are more in line with ours, and we can be honest about character issues like filial duty, spirituality, and brain function.

That’s a big part of the Fan Strategy & Marketing Department’s focus right now. We want to help fans understand what character really means.  We are planning a character version of the NFL Play 60 initiative, called Character Counts. Our analysis indicates that the NFL will transform the way fans look at character by 2020.