Football fans are smarter than teams and media give them credit for. When the Eagles released DeSean Jackson, they could easily have said, "Jackson is a great player, but between his sometimes-spotty play and his occasional inability to get along with coaches and teammates, we don't believe he's worth the $10 million he's due this season," and nobody would have batted an eye.
But the timing of Jackson's release, coming minutes after the publication of an NJ.com story alleging gang ties (a story that relied on unnamed sources "within the Eagles' organization"), made the narrative something else entirely, something more sensational and (sure, why not) newsworthy than your garden variety player-cut-because-he's-too-expensive story. Now it was about gangs! And gang signs! And the Crips! And Instagram.
It metastasized to incorporate issues of race and of class, with Richard Sherman bringing in Jim Irsay to make a comparison, and Jason Whitlock defending the Eagles by knocking down criticisms Sherman didn't offer, to the point where it's impossible to tell who set up the strawmen and how many of them there are.
CBS Philly offers a new-old wrinkle to the story today, with some vicious remarks from unnamed Eagles sources on how shitty it is to have to deal with Jackson:
"You see little kids and how they cry and whine when they don't get their way, that was D-Jax. I don't think [Jackson] gave [Kelly] the respect he deserved. Kelly tried to reach [Jackson] plenty of times and [Jackson] tuned him out. Then you look at team functions, when everyone is out together at charity things or social stuff. He was the one missing. It was like he was in 'D-Jax world' and we just happened to be there."
"That's [Kelly's] way. It pisses me off that [Kelly] comes off looking like the bad guy here. It wasn't just [Kelly] that wanted him gone. [Kelly] got a lot of feedback from guys that felt we were better off without [Jackson], too. [Kelly] is very much a player's coach. His office is open to anyone. Now [Jackson] is the Redskins' problem. We have something good going here and it's going to get better without [Jackson]. He had to go."
"Funny how [Jackson] has this anti-bully thing and he thought he could push [Kelly] around; he found out otherwise. His being cut had nothing to do with the gang stuff. The team knew it. Everyone knew he had 'ties.' Those were his guys. That's okay. What put him out was his selfishness. He can try and spin it all he wants how he's 'a team player.' He's not. I'll put it this way, when it came out last Friday that [Jackson] was released, more than a few guys were happy it happened. They said 'good riddance.' He had no real connection with anyone."
The simplest of upshots is that the Eagles didn't need the gang stuff to want DeSean Jackson gone. (This is the point Whitlock was ever-halving his way toward, if never quite landing upon, Zeno's dichotomy paradox in 1,300 words.)
If only it could have gone down this way from the beginning. These are Eagles smearing an ex-player on his way out of town, and even if their words and feelings are 100 per cent true and Jackson deserves the scorn, that's never a good look for anyone involved. But does it make things better or worse if this is damage control for damage control, an attempt to walk back the initial gang stuff as an explanation by lumping on more, and more relevant, negativity?
The NFLPA announced this morning that it will investigate the Eagles' handling of DeSean Jackson's release, specifically the team's involvement in the NJ.com gang story. The level of that involvement matters very much: Did the Eagles release Jackson because of the story, knowing his trade value would take a nosedive? Or did they leak the story to justify Jackson's release?
The truth is probably somewhere in between the two extremes. Even if they weren't the initial source of it, a close reading of the story suggests that the Eagles were perfectly willing to confirm the gang stuff for reporters, knowing it'd help Jackson's inevitable departure go down easier. At the very least, they seem to have timed his release to the story, forever tying the two in the public's minds. That's a disservice to Jackson, but more of one to Eagles fans, who know enough about football to appreciate that sometimes great players are cut for mundane reasons.