The question on the minds of many NFL fans over the past week is: Does Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson have gang ties?
The better question might be: What does "gang ties" mean, anyway? And even more, does this loose characterization threaten the contract status and livelihood of other players around the league?
One longtime sports agent, reached by Yahoo Sports Tuesday night, worried about a "DeSean Effect" where teams will cut ties with players rather than pay them or re-up them because of assumed gang ties. The Philadelphia Eagles, who have yet to publicly address their reasoning, released Jackson last Friday, hours after a report by NJ.com that the team was concerned with the receiver's gang connections. Jackson has since signed a three-year deal with the rival Washington Redskins.
"Teams will use this," predicted the agent, who asked not to be named for this story. "If you consider players from the inner city, 95 percent of them can be said to have gang ties."
That leads us back to the definition of a gang, and that can be quite a slippery slope.
The first FAQ on the National Gang Center website is "What is a gang?" And the first sentence in the ensuing explanation is, "There is no single, generally accepted definition of a 'gang.' "
That poses a problem when a football player (or anyone) is accused of having "gang ties." That presumes the player is associated with a group, but it also presumes that particular group is actually a gang.
A survey of eighth graders in 11 cities known for gang problems found that nearly one in five had been involved in a gang at some point in their lives. Expand that to gang "ties" and you have a rapidly expanding classification. Now consider that the best athletes in a community are often very popular and known by everyone, and the chances of "gang ties" are quite large.
The National Gang Center lists several characteristics of a gang, including: "three or more members, generally aged 12-24;" "share an identity, typically linked to a name, and often other symbols;" "members view themselves as a gang;" "the group has some permanence and a degree of organization;" and "involved in an elevated level of criminal activity."
It's the last trait that scares everyone from neighbors to general managers. It brings immediately to mind former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is accused of multiple murders and is currently in jail awaiting trial. Hernandez has not been convicted of anything, yet he's the sum of all fears: an alleged murderer who had been on the field.
"Gang ties" is a far cry from that. Jackson was questioned by the Los Angeles Police Department about his possible relationship to alleged members of the Crips, but that's as far as it went.
"It's kind of like 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,' " LAPD Homicide Det. Chris Barling told the Philadelphia Daily News. "When people grow up in neighborhoods where you have gang involvement, you don't have to look too far before you find a connection to a connection. Now, how sinister that connection is, our position is that's for others to judge."
The problem is that leaving a connection to the Crips for "others to judge" doesn't usually lead to a shrug. It leads to an assumption of nefarious activities. Yes, you are the company you keep, but "gang ties" doesn't even lead one to the company of a gang. It only leads to acquaintanceship.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman touched on this in a column he wrote for MMQB.com on Wednesday: "I look at those words – gang ties – and I think about all the players I've met in the NFL and all of us who come from inner-city neighborhoods like mine in Los Angeles, and I wonder how many of us could honestly say we're not friends with guys doing the wrong things," Sherman wrote. "I can't."
Then there are the many NFL players who turn to football as an escape from the kind of behavior associated with gangs. Many young athletes choose sports as a conscious way to run away from violence, drugs and crime. Their "gang" is their team, with its own colors, its own identity, its own uniform, its own signs, its own goals and its own constructive way of funneling aggression into something that helps themselves and the community. It's the fear of lapsing into the ways of their neighborhood friends that fuels them to keep playing and keep excelling.
[Related: Jackson latest star to join a division rival]
Ideally, the player makes a clean break with those old friends, choosing only the best influences and sticking with them. But as anyone knows, whether from the inner city or from the most gilded of gated communities, it's rarely that easy. Some of the so-called bad influences are family members. And in some cases, gangs look out for the safety of those they favor – like popular athletes.
Nobody wants a gang member on any football team, let alone an NFL team. But "gang" is so hard to define, and "gang ties" is that much harder. If you eliminated all of the players with "gang ties" from professional sports, you might be eliminating some of the most popular athletes in the world – and more than a few athletes who have done absolutely nothing wrong.