TEMPE, Ariz. — Boxer Mike Tyson was convicted of raping Desiree Washington and sentenced to six years in prison, but he resumed his boxing career upon his release in 1995.
NHL forward Dany Heatley pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide in 2003, but he still played that season for the Atlanta Thrashers, and he’s played in every NHL season since.
In April 2007, NFL quarterback Michael Vick was implicated in an illegal, interstate dog-fighting ring. He served 21 months in prison before resuming his career in 2009 with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice 13 years ago in a stabbing incident in which two men died. He played on, and he was widely celebrated upon his retirement last season.
The common denominator? All four athletes possessed immense talent and money-making ability for their teams and/or their sport. Despite the P.R. and legal risks they posed, they were deemed gambles worth taking.
The Cardinals do not yet know what sort of risk they are facing with third-round draft pick Tyrann Mathieu, who was introduced at a press conference Thursday, or third-year linebacker Daryl Washington. In Mathieu’s case, they’re not even sure his college talent will translate to the NFL level.
But given Washington’s early returns, the Cardinals have thus far stood by their budding Pro Bowler in the face of a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse as well as a recent arrest on suspicion of aggravated assault on the mother of his child. And given Mathieu’s eye-popping yet abbreviated college career at LSU, the Cardinals were willing to risk a high pick on a player who just might have first-round talent, even if he has exhibited a habitual lack of good judgment.
“You don’t want to build your locker room of 53 players with risk,” Cards general manager Steve Keim said after the selection of Mathieu. “If you feel like you have a strong core of solid veteran leaders, guys like (Darnell) Dockett, Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington, guys like that, who you feel can help keep some structure in place, I think that you have a chance to occasionally take a risk and take a chance.”
If you just spit out your soda noting that Washington and Dockett were among those singled out for leadership, well, you’re not alone. But that’s a topic for another day.
The intent here is not to compare what Washington and Mathieu have done — or may have done — with the first four cases mentioned in this column. Those are extremes, but they highlight a consistent and recurring pattern in professional sports: the willingness to overlook behavioral or legal troubles when they are accompanied by elite athletic ability.
In a sense, the Cardinals’ task in assessing their two players is far more difficult because the players’ indiscretions are less severe, or less clear-cut in the case of Washington’s ongoing legal battle.
The team must decide in March whether it will pay Washington a $10 million option bonus. And if his legal troubles go the wrong way, they must also decide whether he’s worth the risk of keeping around any longer.
To some fans, it’s simple: Cut ties with problem players and move on. It’s the right thing to do, the move that best exemplifies character and standards in an organization. But those same fans will turn around and criticize a team or — even worse for the franchise — not attend games if the team is losing.
Washington is clearly the type of player who can help a team win. And before these incidents, nobody would have imagined him as a potential problem – not teammates, not coaches, not Keim, not media members, not fans. Washington seems humble, likeable, approachable and coachable.
The team still hasn’t commented on Washington’s alleged assault, and that is as it must be in the United States’ legally charged atmosphere. But Mathieu was there to face the music for his past transgressions in front of a sizable assembly of local media.
“I definitely have a long journey ahead of me. There are definitely going to be some challenges,” he said before adding, “My actions for the last six months have proven I’m on the right track. … I think I have my head on straight.”
Many an athlete has uttered similar words only to slip up again. Many an athlete has uttered similar words and proved them to be true.
At the very least, Mathieu seems to understand his greater responsibility – not just to his teammates and the organization but to the community.
“As I look back on my career at LSU, I was that guy there, too, and I kind of let it all slip away from me,” he said. “To go through that then and to understand my responsibility now, I have a different mindset, I have a different outlook, and I understand that there are a bunch of people out there who want to see me succeed and who want to see me be a leader of their community.”
There are a whole lot of people invested in that positive potential outcome. But if the alternative comes to fruition, it’s naïve to believe that it will change the franchise’s operating philosophy.