If you don’t know who Joe Thomas is, it is likely due to the fact that: a) you are not an NFL fan, b) you loathe the Cleveland Browns, or c) you have never heard of this amazing social media network called Twitter. For those who don’t know, Joe Thomas is a 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle for the Browns who has remained one of the most loyal, consistent, and talented players that the organization has ever drafted since their reinstatement. He is also considered to be one of the best players to follow on Twitter.
While most tweets consist of humorous takes and messing with his teammates, he has shown from time to time the ability to address serious issues.
Last Saturday, Thomas took to Twitter to share an article regarding the fact that no NFL owners are willing to offer free agent Colin Kaepernick a deal. While quoting the article, he states, “Most people can agree his current unemployment is a combination of his anthem protest and his declining play, which is playing more into it?”
Most people can agree his current unemployment is a combination of his anthem protest and his declining play, which is playing more into it? pic.twitter.com/2wrg8zkdNX
— Joe Thomas (@joethomas73) March 25, 2017
He followed this up with a Twitter poll that asked his followers to vote on what they think the biggest factor was for him not being signed. The results show that this topic is very polarized:
Finally, Thomas offered his perspective of why Kaepernick is not receiving any offers:
While many people, such as Richard Sherman, are arguing that this is solely a result of Kaepernick’s well-documented anthem protest last season, others believe that it is primarily due to his lackluster stats in recent years.
So who is right?
I am not here to take sides or decide who is right or wrong. Furthermore, it is not my place to spew my personal political perspective of Kaepernick’s actions and it really doesn’t matter what I believe. I am merely here to offer a sports-minded perspective and investigate whether or not Thomas’s statement is credible.
On March 26, Thomas stated on Twitter that he realized that many people have a different definition of what it means to be a distraction in the NFL. First, he asked what people thought a distraction was from an NFL management position.
From NFL management perspective, a player is a "distraction" if he makes non football related:
— Joe Thomas (@joethomas73) March 26, 2017
He followed this up by asking whether or not people thought that Kaepernick was a distraction last year.
Finally, he added his take on what he thought a distraction is by stating:
I think mine would be; anytime a player does something that forces his teammates to answer questions from media unrelated to football.
— Joe Thomas (@joethomas73) March 26, 2017
However, he also noted:
Last comment on this topic, I think "distractions" are one of the more highly overrated intangible things in football. Like "camaraderie".
— Joe Thomas (@joethomas73) March 26, 2017
Good teams don't LET themselves be distracted.
— Joe Thomas (@joethomas73) March 26, 2017
Performance and Distraction
Assuming that Kaepernick was, in fact, a “distraction” last season, is it possible that he is “worth” the distraction? While his 2016 stats say maybe, the results of games he’s played in say otherwise.
Kaepernick started the season as a backup finally taking over for the team in Week 5 after a lackluster performance from Blaine Gabbert in the game prior. He finished the season playing in 12 games while completing 59% of his passes (196-331) and throwing for 2,241 yards and 16 touchdowns and only 4 picks. However, he only had one 300+ yard throwing game and the 49ers finished the season at 2-14.
Compare those numbers to that of fellow quarterback Jameis Winston who has definitely had his fair share of off-field scandals. When drafted, Tampa Bay was looking for a franchise quarterback and Winston was regarded as the best in his class. Winston had been in trouble for vulgar comments, shoplifting, and even a sexual assault allegation. While the Buccaneers still drafted him, this shows that the positive outweighed the negative in their eyes.
Winston has performed well for a young quarterback in the league. In his rookie season (2015), he was named to the Pro Bowl and was also deemed the NFL Rookie of the year. In 2016, he improved on the stats of his rookie year by completing 61% of his passes (345-567) while throwing for 4,090 yards and 28 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He also helped better his team from a 6-10 record to 9-7 last year.
An Alternative Take
Arguing against Thomas’ claim, Evan Grossman of the NY Daily News claimed that Thomas was wrong because “players have always been signed by teams, no matter how many reporters and TV cameras they attract.” He lists examples such as D.J. Fluker, Tim Tebow, Michael Vick, Alex Rodriguez, and the New England Patriots.
For the sake of argument, I will operate under the beliefs of that which the majority deemed to best fit their views in the above polls a distraction is to be defined by a player making “non-football related negative news” and that “Colin Kaepernick was a distraction last year.” While many may view Kaepernick’s protest as “positive” as opposed to “negative,” that is a topic of debate better suited for CNN. I am merely operating within the confines defined by Twitter poll results.
Under these definitions, Tim Tebow is relieved from this list.
Fluker was a player who joined in Kaepernick’s protest last year. But he is an offensive lineman who gave up minimal sacks in his tenure with San Diego. In other words, he has proven his value.
Returning to Jameis Winston, he has still been a distraction since he has been playing in the NFL. Just recently, he was in the news for controversial comments he made while giving a speech to elementary students. On February 22nd, Winston was trying to regain the attention of one of the students who was not attentive and he stated:
“All my young boys, stand up. The ladies, sit down, But all my boys, stand up. We strong, right? We strong! We strong, right? All my boys, tell me one time: I can do anything I put my mind to. Now a lot of boys aren’t supposed to be soft-spoken. You know what I’m saying? One day y’all are going to have a very deep voice like this. One day, you’ll have a very, very deep voice. But the ladies, they’re supposed to be silent, polite, gentle. My men, my men supposed to be strong. I want y’all to tell me what the third rule of life is: I can do anything I put my mind to. Scream it!” (via profootballtalk.nbcsports.com)
Winston swiftly realized his mistake and apologized the next day for his poor choice of words. But there was never any doubt that he would remain with the Buccaneers. This is due to the fact that management has been encouraged by Winston’s numbers. They improved from year one to year two as did the team’s record. They have placed their faith in him as their offensive leader and are therefore more tolerant of his off-field controversies.
Turning to Michael Vick, he admittedly is a good example to use in contending Thomas’s claim. Vick played for the Atlanta Falcons for six years and was a three-time Pro-Bowler. In 2007, he pleaded guilty to being involved in a dog-fighting ring and he spent 21 months in federal prison. However, there are some discernible differences between the two cases. Most would argue that spending time in prison for killing dogs is a worse offense than protesting racial injustices and police brutality and they would be right. But Vick’s return to the league was treated as a redemption story rather than a negative one.
Most people believed that he would be unable to perform at a professional level after spending nearly two years away from the game. The possibility that he could turn his life around and play for a team again made the publicity surrounding him positive rather than negative. While I don’t condone his actions nor do I agree with the reverse of treatment when he returned to the NFL, the fact of the matter is that he had redeemed himself. The fact that he served his time in prison and paid for his mistakes changed the evil image that many people had of Vick and the media’s compassionate portrayal of his return certainly helped to lighten his image. Finally, Vick had the best season of his career in 2010 with the Philadelphia Eagles after he had served his time in prison. In that year, he was elected to his fourth Pro-Bowl, while leading the Eagles to a 10-6 season, and completing 62.6% of his passes (233-372) for 3,018 passing yards including 21 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. He also averaged 6.8 yards a carry while running for 676 yards and 9 touchdowns.
In regards to Alex Rodriguez, I would argue that managerial views of player antics differ from sport to sport. A-Rod is considered to be one of the best players of the modern era. Even though the fact that he used PED’s hurts his legacy, the fact of the matter is he cemented his career with the New York Yankees and he helped them win a World Series in 2009 (even with the distractions as he notes.) Additionally, when you have as much money as the Yankees do, you can afford to keep whoever you want even if they are deemed as a distraction. They are a franchise known for consistently having great teams and winning and they are going to do that regardless of what distractions might arise (as Thomas and Grossman each point out—though with possibly different meaning or interpretations).
The same goes for the New England Patriots. Believe me when I say that I am so tired of Pats fans. I am. But I am also a realist. And the realist in me is convinced beyond a doubt that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady could get away with just about anything and get offered an extension to their contracts. I can’t help it. I give credit where credit is due. Brady and the Pats are so good, it doesn’t really matter what they do. That team was hounded by football-related distractions like Deflategate, and negative non-football distractions such as Brady and Belichick’s friendship and supposed support of Donald Trump. Yet, with all this negativity surrounding the team and them getting hounded each week, the Pats still won the Super Bowl in the most miraculous fashion that I have ever seen in my life.
And that really is the whole point of Thomas’ argument that I think people are missing—in order to be able to get away with the reputation of being a “distractive player,” you have to be deemed good enough.
The Threshold of Acceptable Distraction
Now, what I can conclude from this is that Thomas’s take is highly likely: Teams do not view Kaepernick as good enough to risk signing on to the baggage that he brings with him. While this perspective may seem simple or even possibly common sense to some, it actually unearths some complex results.
Ultimately, this shows that there is a direct correlation between a player’s talent and the number of distractions NFL owners will let a player get away with. The problem with this assessment is that there is no tangible or analytical way of determining what it means to be “good enough.” There are no statistics or specific equation to allude to that shows if a player is valuable enough and there is no way to determine when a player has gone too far.
What all this does prove, however, is that there is undeniably a “threshold of acceptable distraction” among league owners. This means that as a player’s worth increases, the amount of distraction accepted by owners and the league also increases. Once a player crosses the boundary of that threshold, they are blackballed or their careers are ruined.
In coming to my resolution, while I find Thomas’s claims to be credible, I can’t help but also feel some sympathy for Kaepernick. Because while examining the existence of this threshold, it is impossible not to observe how truly disillusioned owner’s priorities are.
Disregarding the emotional nature of Kaepernick’s protest that I understand most people who despise him feel, let’s break it down to what he did. He protested against an injustice that he felt was wrong. Many feel that there are better ways of protesting and there are different arenas that are better suited for protesting that would have angered fewer people and I understand that. But the crux of the matter is that he tried to take a stand against what he thought was wrong.
When looked at in its simplest terms, how is that less forgivable than somebody who assaults an ex-girlfriend and threatens to kill her? Grossman brings up a great point in mentioning Greg Hardy. While he interprets this to negate Thomas’s claim, I find that it is proof of a much bigger problem.
Greg Hardy played for the Carolina Panthers before this happened and after he was released and went to trial, he was still signed to a one-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys. While he was released due to additional off-field distractions and lackluster play, the fact of the matter simply is he was still given a second-chance by the Cowboys.
There are too many other examples to count. Cedric Benson had multiple counts of assault and was still retained by the Cincinnati Bengals. Adam “Pacman” Jones was involved in the famous Las Vegas shooting case and was also involved in numerous assault allegations; yet, he still is in the NFL. The unfortunate truth is there are plenty of players who do bad things and yet they are valued enough by their team or a team to keep getting signed. According to nflarrest.com, over the past five years, the top arrests have been for DUI (53), drug related (30), domestic violence (23), and assaults (16). While not all of these are horrible or irredeemable offenses (there are plenty of people who get DUIs) most of these should be viewed as worse than what Kaepernick did (the other three, or at the very least, the last two). Yet—most of these players are still given another chance.
In conclusion, I don’t think Thomas is wrong for thinking what he does. I fail to believe that there is a single determinate that is causing reluctance across the league to sign Kaepernick. It is likely a result of both his distractions as well as his mediocre play. But Thomas makes a good point by pointing out that Kaepernick’s play isn’t good enough for team owners to tolerate. Furthermore, analyzing his take from a macro-point-of-view reveals a much larger and darker story: if a player is bringing their team wins and making their team money, management is willing to overlook just about anything to keep that player on their team. Determining why no team will sign a particular player now pales in comparison. A league-wide lack of morality is much more troubling to me.