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In the wake of the Dwayne Haskins tragedy, maybe we should re-define what off-field issues are

What are off-the-field issues involving professional athletes? From what I can gather, Dwayne Haskins didn’t actually have off-the-field issues, at least not the kind that should have hurt his reputation or even his football career. Maybe we should re-define the term.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

In the days since Steelers quarterback Dwayne Haskins died tragically after being struck by a vehicle while trying to cross a Florida highway on Saturday morning, we’ve seen nothing but an outpouring of love for the 2019 first-round pick out of The Ohio State.

Just about everyone who knew Haskins as a kid, a college student and a professional football player—including former coaches and teammates—have been raving about what a wonderful and charming person he was.

People who didn’t know Haskins are a bit surprised to find out how well-loved he was as a person and a teammate. Maybe that’s because Haskins was previously defined by his off-the-field issues, issues that led to his release by Washington, the team that picked him 15th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, less than two full seasons into his NFL career.

But what were Haskins's off-the-field transgressions? It always bothered me that this defined who he was as a player and a person because nothing ever really stood out as all that egregious. This is why I did a little research into Haskins’s time in Washington and found an article about him published by The Washington Post in December of 2020, shortly after he was released.

After reading the article, I still didn’t quite grasp what turned Haskins’s bosses off to the point they decided to cut bait so soon after investing a first-round draft in him. Haskins was often late to meetings, and he seemed to have trouble coming to terms with the enormous responsibility that fell on the shoulders of a franchise quarterback. During his rookie season, Haskins got into hot water for taking a selfie with a fan in the stands at the end of a game while his backup quarterback had to rush out onto the field and kneel out the clock. Of course, Haskins’s most famous issue in Washington—other than the fact that there was a major disagreement between owner Daniel Snyder and his 2019 coaching staff about drafting him in the first place—was being seen partying with strippers and breaking COVID protocol during the height of the pandemic in 2020.

I’ll give you the COVID stuff—certainly a bad look—but the strippers thing? Please. If going to strip clubs makes a football player a bad person, then there have been a lot of bad apples in the NFL over the past century.

Anyway, did any of the stuff I just described about Haskins's time in Washington make him seem like a bad or deeply troubled person? Didn't it kind of feel like his old bosses gave up on him too soon?

I can’t speak on the stripper stuff, but Haskins seemed to have the same problems that plagued Terry Bradshaw early in his career. In other words, his maturity had yet to catch up to his incredible abilities. Also, Haskins may have failed to realize just how gosh-darn serious people take the NFL—especially coaches, fans and the media.

My biggest takeaway from the Haskins tragedy—especially after looking into his history—is that we should probably re-define what off-the-field issues actually are moving forward.

We seem to have watered down that definition in recent years.

Maybe that’s why Gil Brandt, a former Cowboys executive, felt emboldened to say such vicious things about Haskins in a radio interview shortly after finding out about the tragedy.

Sadly, many folks look at things like poor work habits and partying the same way Brandt does—as serious off-the-field issues and not simply maturity issues.

I know lots of “regular” folks who party and go to strip clubs, but I don’t consider their partying ways to be “out-of-office” issues.

And it never even crosses my mind that they may be bad people.

You might say, “Well, NFL coaches don’t like that kind of stuff.” First of all, coaches don’t like anything. Second of all, half of them don’t even know how to manage a game clock, yet, suddenly, they’re wise old sages when it comes to how a football player should conduct himself on his own time?

Haskins was vilified for his behavior in Washington because the perception of that kind of behavior—at least when it involves professional athletes—has changed a lot over the years.

Legend has it that Bobby Layne, the former Lions and Steelers quarterback, would go out drinking the night before a game and then step in the huddle the next day—totally hungover and stinking of booze--and throw three touchdowns. Kenny “The Snake” Stabler once said of his notorious partying ways, “How much sleep did you need to go out and play for three hours?”

Two springs ago, James Harrison, during an appearance on Willie Colon’s Going Deep podcast, talked about the many nights he and his teammates went out drinking during the season and how they often went straight from the bar to either the Steelers’ South Side facilities the next morning to work out or to Heinz Field to play a game.

When you hear former players recall such tales from yesteryear, they’re usually met with a lot of laughs and some knee slaps. But when you hear them about a current player—especially in the social media age—that person is often called a troubled young man with demons.

And it doesn’t just stop at partying, either. Even something as benign as social media activity can often turn players into villains in the eyes of the media, fans and the teams that employ them.

Social media activity is now being lumped in with other things as just another off-the-field issue, which is just insane.

I spent two or three days last summer arguing with people over the stupid joke Steelers linebacker Devin Bush made about a video he retweeted of a cat falling down a stairwell.

“Would you have the same reaction if it were a child?” someone asked me when I said that we should go easy on Bush, that it shouldn’t define his character or ruin his football career.

I guess it’s fitting that someone would create a hypothetical scenario involving a social media joke about a child to add weight to the seriousness of an actual social media joke involving a feline, considering so many think JuJu Smith-Schuster is a piece of human garbage simply for making TikTok videos involving milkcrate challenges and Slip ‘N Slides.

When it gets to the point of the media and fans attacking players for everything they do away from the field—everything that doesn’t perceive them as eating, sleeping and breathing football—that tells me you think of them as gladiators first and human beings second.

As the title says, maybe we should stop giving equal weight to silly and normal human things—especially human behavior exhibited by the vast majority of young people—as we do to actual crimes.

Thirty years ago, a player like JuJu Smith-Schuster would have been seen as a breath of fresh air, a player with an actual personality who liked to yuck it up.

Now, we simply want people like him to grow up, to take the sport they play super-seriously.

At the end of the day, there is nothing so serious about the game of football—or any other professional sport, for that matter—that we should ruin a person’s reputation simply for being a human being.