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Webster's defines "character" as "1. the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing. 2. one such feature or trait; characteristic. 3. moral or ethical quality: a man of fine, honorable character. 4. qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity: It takes character to face up to a bully. 5. reputation: a stain on one's character. 6. good repute. 7. an account of the qualities or peculiarities of a person or thing. 8. a person, esp. with reference to behavior or personality: a suspicious character. 9. Informal. an odd, eccentric, or unusual person. 10. a person represented in a drama, story, etc. 11. a part or role, as in a play or film. 12. a symbol as used in a writing system, as a letter of the alphabet. 13. the symbols of a writing system collectively. 14. a significant visual mark or symbol. 15. status or capacity: the character of a justice of the peace. 16. a written statement from an employer concerning the qualities of a former employee. 17. Literature. (esp. in 17th- and 18th-century England) a formal character sketch or descriptive analysis of a particular human virtue or vice as represented in a person or type. 18. Genetics. any trait, function, structure, or substance of an organism resulting from the effect of one or more genes as modified by the environment. 19. Computers. a. any symbol, as a number, letter, punctuation mark, etc., that represents data and that, when encoded, is usable by a machine. b. one of a set of basic symbols that singly or in a series of two or more represents data and, when encoded, is usable in a computer. 20. a style of writing or printing. 21. Roman Catholic Theology. the ineffaceable imprint received on the soul through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and ordination. 22. (formerly) a cipher or cipher message."

For the sake of this post, you can probably ignore 8 through 22 on that list, as I won't be discussing Roman Catholic theology or computer programming. At least I don't plan on it. (However, I am using characters 12 and 13 to write this.) I just couldn't come up with a good intro for this post, so I went with the most hackneyed one I could think of.

Anyway, I figure hundreds of columnists and bloggers have written this same exact column/post, but all this "character" talk with the NFL draft has really been eating at me. All morning and afternoon, as well as the week leading up to the draft, analysts have talked about the all-time high emphasis on players having "good character."

Man, what a joke.

I won't go into the cynical angle that professional sports organizations really don't care about their players' conduct as long as they help the team make money. The truth is, yes, organizations do care for that very reason--these "character" issues are bad PR and cost their players time on the field. Just because the motive is more about profit than America's youth, the motive is still there.

That said, NFL owners and GMs shouldn't kid themselves and think they're accomplishing much by screening prospective picks on these character indicators. Over and over, we've heard who has or hasn't "tried" marijuana or who's had a run-in with the law.

That shallowness of the discussion just astounds me. Marijuana? This is a primary factor in judging these players' character? Are you kidding me? I understand that an assault or gun violation would raise concern about a player's off-field conduct, and I understand that no GM wants to draft a guy who might get suspended half the season for failing his drug test.

But really, how effective are these indicators in predicting things like suspensions? Maybe people knew that Ricky Williams was kind of a pothead coming into the league, but even knowing that, could anyone have predicted the toll it's taken on his career?

Or Pacman Jones. This week on ESPN the ex-GM (forgot his name) who drafted Jones noted that he'd only had one incident in college--a fight during his sophomore year. Then Jones went to the NFL and--well--became Pacman Jones.

I realize that both situations are anecdotal and that all predictors--even good ones--will have their limitations and exceptions, but I think they highlight a very important fact. Once these players are drafted to the NFL, their lives change so profoundly that, in a sense, they will no longer be the same person they were in college or high school. The life situations that will dictate their post-college life will scarcely resemble those that made up their pre-professional life.

We call young adulthood our "formative years" for a reason. There are no doubt certain under-the-surface personality characteristics, ingrained in our genes and childhood experiences, that stay relatively constant beyond the age of 21 or 22. But how those will manifest themselves in a profoundly different context with profoundly different day-to-day stimuli or how they will affect on-field development are issues with which the best developmental psychologists might struggle--let alone NFL personnel.

It's also unfortunate that the relevance and complexity of "character" within a sports context are seemingly glossed over in this discussion. Suspension issues aside, teams desire good character guys because they want players who will not detract from the team dynamic. That's a perfectly reasonable goal, but to that end, factors like marijuana use and criminal offenses, I think, mean even less.

As far as PR goes, it's unrealistic for an organization to entirely avoid players who might put a negative face on the franchise, and any attempt to do so is pretty futile and self-defeating. I'm simply not convinced that sort of thing is within a team's control, and the overly cautious teams will ultimately get burned passing on talent in a vain attempt to keep their noses clean. And after all, isn't it more noble to give a troubled kid his due and take some responsibility for his fate than it is to say, "not our problem"? But I guess responsibility has nothing to do with it, despite the league's DARE officer approach to matters of character.

I could go further, but I'd better stop myself now before this post spins into a wild tangent on all sorts of loosely related topics. As much as I'd like that, I simply don't have time for that right now. Sorry, this ending is even worse than the intro.


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