The Bears made a “splash” in free agency on Tuesday, but not the kind you might expect.
In free agency parlance, a “splash” refers to a major acquisition, usually involving a huge contract for a player who doesn’t quite deserve it. The kind of splash the Bears made was more akin to dropping a boulder into a pond and watching the ripples reach all edges of its boundaries.
That boulder was free agent defensive end Ray McDonald, he of the domestic violence arrests last year that earned him a pink slip out of San Francisco in December. The Bears agreed to a one-year deal with the troubled lineman on Tuesday.
Like most Americans, I do not condone domestic violence of any kind. In fact, I don’t like violence period, which makes my involvement and infatuation with football a little curious — but that’s a topic for another day and for another trip to the shrink.
The NFL had a miserable 2014 season from a public relations standpoint. It began with Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice being suspended for striking his then-fiancée in an elevator and knocking her out cold. It then featured one of the most prominent players in the league, former MVP Adrian Peterson, being indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child after the excessive punishment of his son. These two cases brought national attention — from media sources outside the sports world — to the ongoing domestic violence problem that the NFL seems to have.
I’m not here to debate the severity of the problem the NFL faces. To me, one domestic violence charge is one too many. In fact, one arrest is probably one too many unless it happens to be a mistaken identity by the police.
By and large, if comparing arrest records, the NFL is largely made up of good men with clean records. Unfortunately, the media doesn’t care about “good guys.” They don’t make for good stories and increased pageviews. So the large majority of attention is paid to the small minority of players who make poor choices.
The NFL is on “probation” right now in the public’s eye. Every move they make is heavily scrutinized by the nation — both sports fans and not — to see if they’re setting a good example for our youth and young adults. Football players are looked up to as if they were gods, and the reality of the situation is that they are role models whether they like it or not.
It’s because of this watchful eye that the signing of McDonald by the Bears is a curious one. At a time when the Bears are attempting to clean up the mess of a locker room that was last season under Marc Trestman, why bring extra attention to the organization in a negative light?
In fact, new general manager Ryan Pace noted in his introductory press conference that he was looking for players with high “character.” It’s difficult to say that McDonald has good character. He never was formally charged for anything, but to have police arrest you generally means you are doing something you probably shouldn’t be doing by toeing the line of legality. Even an arrest of an innocent man — more often than not — means that person was putting himself in, near, or around a situation he probably should have avoided.
So, what is to be made of the Bears’ signing of McDonald? Does this cast a dark cloud over the young, promising Pace, or the clean-cut organization by which he is employed? From reading commentaries online and listening to sports talk radio, it sounds like the public opinion is pretty evenly divided.
Those making the case for this being a bad decision by Pace are using public perception as their primary argument.
“Signing this guy is equivalent to turning a blind eye to his transgressions,” one might say.
“You’re placing your stamp of approval on what kind of guy he is,” others will claim.
I tend to fall in the other camp for those who approve of the signing, and here’s why:
McDonald is not a free agent “splash” from a monetary standpoint. The Bears aren’t even fully committed to him. They signed him to what amounts to a one-year, “prove it” deal. What it means is that McDonald will have to be on his best behavior this season, assuming he makes the team. If he makes one false move off the field, one questionable decision, one sign of poor judgement — heck, if he so much as blows his nose the wrong way — the Bears have the right to get rid of him and never look back.
If the worst should happen and McDonald runs afoul of the law again, does this make the Bears look like a refuge for the criminally troubled? Of course not. Anybody who tries to make that argument is desperately grasping at straws in some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
What the Bears are doing is rolling the dice and hoping they come up Yahtzee. They are a business first and foremost, not a nonprofit organization seeking public funding of trust and approval. Those with a clear conscience and a rational line of thinking will understand that it’s a business decision, not a public relations one.
We are a nation of second chances, after all. Convicts who serve their time in prison have emerged into the light of day and became solid citizens.
Why would we not allow McDonald a second chance to prove he can walk the straight and narrow? He was never charged with any crimes, hence, the Bears are taking a chance on a guy who — at worst — has questionable character. Is McDonald the first and only player in the game with “questionable character?” Of course not. There are plenty of guys with that who can manage to stay out of legal trouble — which is the primary concern of every organization in the NFL.
Pace told the media he wants guys with good “character.” McDonald obviously goes against this mold, at least in the public’s eye. Will this damage Pace’s credibility and the Bears’ clean-cut image?
Let me put it this way: If McDonald fizzles out, is unproductive on the field or gets into trouble off it, I will be more upset in Pace’s football instincts and evaluations than I will about him giving a troubled, unconvicted man a second chance.
Editor’s note: I’m not trying to make the case for why McDonald signing was a good one — it’s neither here nor there. Nor am I vouching for his character — I wouldn’t want him on my team nor would I spend time with the man off the field. Rather, I’m trying to prove that Pace should not be bullied, or have his reputation tarnished, for giving a man a second chance and rolling the dice that it’ll pay off for McDonald both professionally and personally.