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Dez Bryant, Free Agency and NFL Slime

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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If the whole Ray Rice fiasco gave you the impression that  National Football League teams go out of their way to minimize their players' off-the-field indiscretions, you might be right -- that is, unless the player is an impending free agent.

In the past few weeks, the Dallas Cowboys have told anyone who will listen that they have "concerns" with Dez Bryant's past run-ins with the law. With 56 receptions for 793 yards and eight touchdowns, the star wide receiver is having a strong year, just in time for him to become an unrestricted free agent when the season ends. He recently signed with Jay Z's entertainment conglomerate Roc Nation, while his agent from Creative Artists Agency is handling the negotiations with the Cowboys. Dallas reportedly offered Bryant $114 million over 10 years with a paltry $5 million signing bonus, averaging out to $10 million per year for the first six seasons and $20 million guaranteed.  The Cowboys have also threatened to use the franchise tag on Bryant, which would guarantee him $13 million next season, but he's understandably looking for the security of a long-term deal. 

Amid all that, last Sunday, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that the Cowboys feared a long-term contract because Bryant's past could "blow up in his face." Rapoport cited six instances of the police visiting Bryant's house, including incidents allegedly involving harassment, robbery and a baby locked in the car. As CBS Dallas's Shan Shariff and Deadspin's Diana Moskovitz both detail, these incidents have been mostly blown way out of proportion -- by a reporter employed by the league, I might add. Some of the police reports don't even list Bryant's name, none of them resulted in arrests, and all of them happened at least a year ago.

That's not to say Bryant doesn't have a troubled past; his behavioral problems have been well documented. Most notably, he was arrested in 2012 for a domestic abuse incident involving his mother, who told police at the time that her son "tried to kill" her. (That case is still pending.) Concerns about his behavior caused several teams to pass on him in the 2010 NFL Draft. He was suspended for most of his final year in college for lying to NCAA investigators. Knowing all of this, the Cowboys actually traded up to draft him in the first round. 

There are two ways to read this: The Cowboys believed both in Bryant's talent and his ability to shape up once he made it to the pros. In fact, after his domestic violence incident, Bryant submitted to several restrictions the team placed on him, including no alcohol and no strip clubs -- proof that he was willing to rehabilitate himself.

The more cynical take -- to which I'm inclined -- is that the Cowboys were willing to overlook these off-the-field issues as long as Bryant's labor came cheap. It's pretty notable that the domestic violence incident wasn't included in the list Rapoport reported; given the public's heightened awareness of lenient domestic violence policies, any attempt by team officials to make Bryant look bad would simply make them look even worse for failing to suspend or significantly discipline him back in 2012. 

By now, we should be wary of teams using character assassination as a negotiating tool. The Philadelphia Eagles employed the same smarmy tactics earlier this year when they expressed their own "concerns" about impeding free agent's DeSean Jackson's supposed gang affiliations. Just 40 minutes after leaking this doozy of a story to NJ.com --which cited "Jackson's continued associated with reputed Los Angeles street gang members who have been connected to two homicides since 2010" -- the Eagles cut their receiver, who was coming off a career year with 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns.

Of course, we now suspect that it had nothing to do with Jackson's friend circle -- Chip Kelly reportedly simply didn't want him around. "The Eagles knew about Jackson's alleged gang connections, his problems with authority, and his locker-room dramas" long before they released the wide receiver, wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane. "They knew what they were getting when they drafted him in 2008. So for the team to imply that his off-the-field behavior ... had anything to do with the wide receiver's release would be disingenuous."

How do you justify to your fanbase that you're cutting one of your best players after one of his best seasons? Accuse him of being in a gang!

The Eagles and Kelly could very well have been right about Jackson's inability to mesh in the Philadelphia locker room, and the Cowboys have every right to limit their offer to Bryant if they're truly concerned with his past issues. But embarking on a media smear campaign is dirty and unfair to the players. Fans are more than willing to accept "behavioral issues" as an excuse for owners to pinch their pennies (but apparently not as a justification for a deserved suspension). Anti-labor sentiment tends to pit some fans against players trying to get their due while they turn a blind eye to the financial and ethical improprieties of their owners and management. With the way NFL contracts are structured to heavily favor teams, players need to take full advantage of their free agency and get the most guaranteed money.

This is pretty much the last chance Bryant will have to negotiate for anywhere near his fair-market value, and he has stated repeatedly that he wants to stay in Dallas. But even if he has to sign elsewhere, that time the fire department was called to his house three years ago shouldn't be the reason he takes a pay cut. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net