Bryant’s big spending bad for union

Framed under the proper light, the fact Dallas Cowboys rookie receiver Dez Bryant(notes) was stuck with a $54,896 bill at the very upscale Pappas Brothers Steak House is a quaint, humorous little story. Bryant refused to carry a teammate’s shoulder pads during training camp – rejecting a rookie hazing ritual – and buying the veterans dinner was the pay back.

Bryant made up for July's rookie hazing snub.
(Brett Davis/US Presswire)

“They got the young fella,” Bryant’s adviser, David Wells, told ESPNDallas.com. “What could he say? He had to pay it unless he wanted to wash dishes for a month.”

It was funny. Who doesn’t like hearing about the new guy getting suckered?

According to accounts on Twitter and local reporting, players ordered just about everything on the menu, including bottles of fine wine to go. Practice squad receiver Jesse Holley(notes) bragged about having “my leftover 20oz Kobe steak” for breakfast.

The problem isn’t the meal, the bill or the light-hearted reasons behind it. The wine went home corked. No one was arrested. Bryant can afford it (and other rookies may have chipped in). It’s not our business how a player chooses to spend his money.

In a vacuum, this should be (and often is) the norm in the NFL.

For the players though, they aren’t living in a vacuum when owners are threatening a lockout and both sides are engaged in a concentrated effort to win the support of the public. The labor strife is coming and which side the fans chose to side with – wealthy players or really wealthy owners – will go a long way to deciding who eventually wins.

This is a political war now and politics is a dirty business, one that feeds off the lowest common denominator of stupidity. That’s the reality. The NFL Players Association will be well-served to pound that message into their players’ heads. It is way more important than holding up an index finger of unity prior to games. Each player has a lot at stake here.

It isn’t just misconduct – such as Braylon Edwards’s(notes) high-profile, early-morning DWI arrest last week – that hurts the players’ image. It’s conspicuous consumption that, in a perfect world, shouldn’t matter.

“Cowboys rookie drops 54 grand on dinner” is the kind of news summary that fits perfectly into our Twitter/ticker world. For many, there’s no perspective or additional information needed to make a conclusion. A 21-year-old just spent more on one meal than the median annual income for an American family. Personally, I don’t care. Others, no doubt, do.

The NFL and its owners know how to play this game. There’s a reason commissioner Roger Goodell has begun hosting “fan forums.” And it’s no accident he came dressed casually in a golf shirt. Goodell, the son of a U.S. senator, wants to portray himself (and often does) as a concerned and connected executive, not someone who makes $11-plus million a year and arrived on a private jet.

Actually, scratch the $11 million. He makes less. The savvy Goodell took a voluntary 20 percent pay cut in 2009.

This is what the players association is up against. Fans just want the games to go on, but if there is a work stoppage, someone is going to get a bigger brunt of the blame.

It doesn’t matter that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones could pay (and, for all we know, has paid) for a $540,000 dinner. It doesn’t matter that Bryant earns that money by literally risking his neck catching passes over the middle. It doesn’t matter that regardless of how the owners and players carve up future revenue it isn’t going to lower the price of popcorn at the stadium.

This is politics. You have to be disciplined and smart and understand the peculiar (and often unfair) rules of the game. The simplest of slip-ups can reinforce stereotypes.

In 1992, then president George H.W. Bush attended a grocers’ convention where he tried out a checkout scanner. It was reported that he was amazed at the technology, although that account has been widely questioned and video of it shows he actually didn’t appear all that surprised.

It didn’t matter. Once the talking point was out there, it wasn’t coming back. Bush was painted as out of touch even though few Americans would want a sitting president doing the weekly White House shopping.

Al Gore never actually said he invented in the Internet, yet the story caught fire and played into the stereotype that he stretched the truth to take undue credit.

Both men lost their presidential elections.

On his Fox Sports Radio show, Stephen A. Smith said that it doesn’t help that Bryant is young and black. In certain circles, he’s correct. Bryant being suspended his final season at Oklahoma State for lying to the NCAA isn’t a bonus either.

Regardless of race, a better story from the union’s perspective came from HBO’s “Hard Knocks”. New York Jets center Nick Mangold celebrated signing a $55 million contract by having dinner that night at Taco Bell. Scenes like that are far more common than the cleaning out of the Pappas Bros.

The union can’t stress enough that this is a time for players to act frugal, especially in public. What seems innocent may not be. What was acceptable last year may not be now. Players would be well served skipping (and especially not hosting) opulent Super Bowl parties this February.

This isn’t about what’s right; it’s about what’s smart.

There’s no room for perspective, little chance to point out that Bryant’s generosity allowed the wait staff to split up a $7,000 or more tip. (If we find out Bryant didn’t offer at least a 15 percent gratuity, well, he and the union are in real trouble).

If business was usual, Bryant’s big bill would be nothing but harmless fun. This isn’t business as usual.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010