Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Jones Case: Minor League Reaction in a Major League Town

What with all the stern editorializing in the Nashville press and electronic media about Pacman Jones’ extracurricular activities, it’s probably time for a slightly alternative view.

Jim Wyatt, recently in the Tennessean, and Liz Garrigan, today in the Nashville Scene, have both weighed in seriously about how the Tennessee Titans defensive back has harmed our city’s image. Garrigan especially seems interested in running Jones out of town on a rail. In the same March 1 issue, the Scene also published ”Pacman Unplugged,” Andy Cordan’s report about a weird, somewhat ominous April ‘06 run-in he had with the now-notorious Jones, whose off-the-field behavior seems irresponsible, capricious—maybe even verging on malevolent—yet certainly embarrassing to a certain segment of the local population.

All accusations against Jones remain subject to confirmation by a higher authority. That is, he’s innocent till proven guilty. All of which, in the end, may only prove that a court of law cannot convict a man legally of spitting in a woman’s face, going to strip clubs, loaning his garishly decorated Cadillac to a friend known as a drug dealer, hanging with gun-toting miscreants, or generally raising a ruckus whenever he’s out on the town.

Hearken back to a point in the Titans’ terrible 2005 season, when the team went 4-12. In a postgame locker-room interview after a particularly galling defeat, a television reporter asked Pacman what seemed to be the problem with the team. Pacman’s reply was actually somewhat pointed. He paused, then with typical arrogance—or was it mere thoughtlessness?—replied, “We need more thugs.”

That was well over a year ago. I don’t recall anyone taking note at the time. But maybe Pacman efficiently isolated the problem. The Titans improved to 8-8 in ‘06. It’s not precisely clear if thuggishness played a role in the four-victory spike. Maybe it was all about Vince Young’s arrival. Still, anyone who watched the Titans in ‘06 can’t deny that Jones, thuggish attitude and all, was a critical role-player. He showed vast improvement as a defensive back, and opposing quarterbacks won’t be throwing his way much in the future. Then there are Jones’ skills as a kick returner. With the possible exception of Chicago’s Devin Hester, Jones is the most dangerous return man in the NFL. He’s hugely exciting. And as long as he stays healthy, the next few years promise some interesting Sunday afternoons at LP Field.

No wonder Titans coach Jeff Fisher is probably conflicted. He was seen on the TV this past season joyfully responding to Jones’ game heroics. He affectionately called him “Pac.” As a former NFL DB and kick returner himself, Fisher is certainly smitten with Jones’ talent. Which probably makes him cringe all the more with every new report of Jones’ questionable activities.

Interestingly, while the Scene‘s Garrigan referenced Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis as a thuggish precursor to Jones, what she failed to mention was that the year following Lewis’ implication in a murder case—charges eventually dropped—he led his team to a Super Bowl victory.

Yeah, those thugs can play some ball. Which doesn’t make things easy for Titans brass, faced now with a deluge of media criticism over their handling—or non-handling—of Jones’ activities.

Clearly, Jones is a rough-hewn, undignified and immature male brain in a well-developed athlete’s body. He could be headed for serious trouble, which even his fat pay-checks can’t bail him out of. He even recently hired Lewis’ lawyer, which either scores a point for Jones’ gray matter, or means he knows there’s real trouble on the near horizon. Or both.

As we’ve stated in these pages before, Jones needs to grow up, and he needs strong mentors to help him do that. I sincerely hope that can happen for him. He’s a terrific football player, and for the time being he’s ours.

But otherwise, as a Nashvillian, I am not disgraced by Pacman Jones. He does not reflect on me. I may not approve of his actions, but neither do I take umbrage at them. I’m not interested in expending righteous energy in some kind of lynch-mob approach to his ouster.

When Nashville decided to become a major league sports town, it had to accept what comes with major league sports. Nowadays, that means accepting the presence of filthy-rich young athletes who might have few manners, who might use drugs—both recreational and performance-enhancing—who might carry guns, who sometimes go to strip clubs, and who are too often followed around by perhaps unsavory men and women who want a piece of their action. This is the unfortunate truth.

Thankfully, most athletes know better than that. Maybe they were raised well. Maybe Pacman Jones wasn’t. But rather than getting all blue-nose about the guy, maybe we can hope that, over time—and if the Titans don’t throw their hands in the air and get rid of him altogether—he’ll start to grow up. That with some mature guidance, Pacman will start to slough off the thuggish mind-set and start to become a mensch, while realizing that he has rare, God-given talents that demand more careful nurturing on his part.

Stall the lynch-mob just a little longer. Maybe Pac'll surprise us. Everybody's got to grow up sometime.

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