So Peter King, the NFL’s ambassador to Sports Illustrated, published something stupid and offensive in this morning’s edition of his weekly Monday Morning Quarterback column: his own writing. Within that, though, a particular passage, explaining the Dallas Cowboys’ selection of University of Nebraska pass-rusher Randy Gregory with the 60th pick of this past weekend’s NFL draft, presents as particularly awful.
King writes (emphasis added):
When it got close to pick 60, I’m told a serious conversation wasn’t needed; Gregory was such a strong candidate as a player that Dallas was willing to work with him on his marijuana history, and his history of depression and anxiety, according to SI.com’s Don Banks. Other reports say Gregory was either bipolar or had some other personality disorder that made it difficult for him to focus on football, or anything, for long periods. Gregory, without question, was a top-10 value on talent alone. But he tumbled down so many draft boards because of his character flaws.
Yep, that’s Peter King, casually describing mental illness—which has nothing to do with character, and is not a flaw in any humane reckoning—as a “character flaw.” As you can imagine, this earned King a round of scorn and criticism on Twitter and elsewhere—for insensitivity, for portraying mental illness as moral failure or personal weakness. He’s already tweeted his apology:
At some point later on, probably in next Monday’s column, King will elaborate on this apology. He’ll insist he in no way intended to make light of mental illness, an issue about which I care deeply, but that he understands how my choice of words may have hurt or offended those who have struggled, or whose loved ones have struggled, against both mental illness and the stigma our society still attaches to it.
And, if he does, he’ll be telling the truth! Peter King almost certainly does not think depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and/or attention disorders are “character flaws.” If Peter King thought that, he would be undermining his professional utility, which is that he does not think at all. He’s not a journalist or commentator so much as he’s a macro that imports spreadsheet data into a weekly Microsoft Word form letter. NFL front-office types input their talking points, and the macro sorts them, dutifully, and with no less agnosticism than that of your common pop-up toaster. The talking points about actual football ability—wingspan, agility, speed, arm strength—go over here, in the Upside bin. Off-field stuff gets sorted into two bins. The appealing stuff, the stuff that makes a personnel decision look good (charisma, performative Christianity, an engineering degree, a wardrobe full of flannel shirts) goes into Intangibles; the unappealing stuff, the stuff that works as a defense of passing on a talented non-quarterback (weed, arrests, mental illness) goes over here, in Character Concerns. What King accidentally illuminated, here, is not an unenlightened personal attitude toward the mentally ill, but the underlying framework and purpose of NFL character scouting.
Fans are reminded, endlessly, of the assiduous study front offices dedicate to determining the moral uprightness and character of players. We’re told that the reason to do this is that a player’s, say, food-bank volunteer work or love of strip clubs might provide an insight into his maturity, his willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team, and so forth. Sometimes we even repeat this nonsense, as the call-in psychos on Skippy and Goatface’s Morning Sports Holocaust will remind you, farting with martial solemnity about the leadership deficiencies revealed by a player’s use of singular pronouns. But all of this is bullshit. Character-scouting amounts to brand management; its purpose is to assemble talking-point justifications for personnel decisions based in no way on character insights.
Consider that King, whose information comes from direct access to front-office decision-makers around the NFL, credits mental health issues (and marijuana use, which is perfectly legal in whole entire states!) as the reason for Randy Gregory’s slide to the 60th overall selection in the very same draft in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected accused rapist (and, uh, inept seafood thief) Jameis Winston with the very first pick. Thanks to a brazenly half-assed law-enforcement response, Winston was neither convicted nor even formally charged in the rape case—but rape is a serious accusation! Accusations don’t get much more serious than rape! Surely an NFL scouting apparatus obsessed with learning as much as possible about the character and moral fiber of a prospect—a potential franchise quarterback, no less, who could shape the organization’s fortunes for the next 20 years—would want to know all it could about this rape accusation, yes?
No. From elsewhere in that very same King column:
I had one question for [Buccaneers general manager Jason] Licht. I had this sinking feeling about the Bucs’ investigation into Winston off the field, that the franchise was finding out what it wanted to find out. The Bucs wanted Winston to win the on- and off-field competitions, and would never put him in position to look bad nationally. So why didn’t the Bucs, who talked to more than 75 people as part of the organization’s investigation into Winston’s character, talk to the woman who accused him of attacking her, Erica Kinsman? Did the Bucs just want the investigation to be finished, and to say what the team wanted it to say?
“That’s not the case,” Licht said adamantly. “We are not talking about this now… but we read the depositions. We knew what she was going to say. This was a thorough investigation. We were not going to mistake charisma for character.”
Got that? They “talked to more than 75 people”—as many people as attended my wedding, for chrissakes—ostensibly to learn about Winston’s character, but felt no need to talk to the woman who accused him of rape. Because they’d “read the depositions,” and somehow knew she could not possibly have anything else to say that might reveal something of Winston’s “character.” That’s not even a good excuse for not talking to her! That is not even a half-assed excuse. It is eighth-assed. It is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ rendered into the somber matters-of-national-security dialect of NFL front offices.
They had what they needed, you see, because the goal never was to learn as much about Winston’s character as they could. They figured he was good enough to take first overall, he was the guy they wanted, and they could learn via licking a finger and sticking it in the air that they wouldn’t face some harmful backlash for selecting him. All they needed from their “investigation into Winston’s character” was enough supportive talking points to create the appearance of diligence, of some rigorous qualifying gauntlet: It’s good ass-covering for the front office, and good branding for Winston—We really put this kid through the wringer, and lemme tell you, he won over the skeptics in the room—and, crucially, his accuser cannot help with it at all.
It’s all optics, the whole character-measuring apparatus, when it’s justifying the Jameis Winston pick and when it’s explaining Randy Gregory’s slide, and all the rest of the time, too. Peter King’s sin isn’t that he’s insensitive to the realities of mental illness, but that he’s a credulous, uncritical dunce, out here internalizing the priors and repeating the talking points of the NFL character industry as though it represents a sincere attempt to know these young men. Of course mental illness isn’t a character flaw—but, neither is marijuana use, and in both cases, the NFL gives a fuck only when it’s crafting the presentation most flattering to itself. For Peter King to believe otherwise is, well, kind of insane.