Sunday, September 7, 2008

Pacman and Deion

If HBO had thought that a reality show about the Dallas Cowboys training camp would be full of drama, they must have been disappointed. This motley crew of outsized personalities and recovering criminals spent their training camp ... working hard, being coached, and creating team spirit. No drama there.

It was not just HBO that had their hopes dashed. Sportswriters had been drooling in anticipation at the chance that Terrell Owens (aka TO)would says something, anything, to cause trouble in Cowboyland. After all, TO had been benched by the Eagles for being a disruptive influence. How could anyone believe that Jerry Jones had magically transformed him into the ultimate team player?

Even if TO was likely to let the sportswriters down, they still held out hope for the new Cowboy cornerback-- Adam Jones, aka Pacman.

Where TO was merely benched by a team, Pacman has been suspended from football for a year, by the Commissioner, Roger Goodell. The reason: an incident in a Law Vegas strip club. I will spare you the details, which involved throwing around cash and bullets. Eventually, Pacman copped a plea to a misdemeanor and did some community service.

As if that was not enough, the Cowboys had also signed a great middle guard named Tank Johnson. Tank had one-upped even Pacman: he had done time on a weapons charge.

Like I say, sportswriters could barely contain their anticipation.

The rest of us can learn a few things from this. If you are in business and are responsible for managing difficult characters, you could do worse than to emulate Jerry Jones.

Cowboy owner Jerry Jones appeared often in "Hard Knocks," mostly saying that he could be anywhere, doing anything with his time. He had chosen to be at training camp. He chose to be there with the players because he loved the game and loved the players.

It matters that the owner is there, on the field, at practice and at scrimmages, in his shorts and golf shirt. It shows that he cares about his players, and not just as they performed for him.

Jones was something of a contrarian investor in talent. He did not merely pick up players that no one wanted; he signed players that no one knew how to deal with.

How did he deal with them? Simply. He showed them respect, he treated them like men, and he cared about their lives beyond football. If a player had a problem with a coach-- as TO did with Bill Parcells-- Jerry Jones had lunch with him and talked it out.

Let's not forget: the Cowboys have a large and efficient player personnel department to keep track of the players and to offer them guidance.

Supposedly, Pacman was going to be a challenge and a half. To manage their potentially great cornerback the team enlisted the help of Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders. Irvin himself knew well how to get into trouble and how to get out of it. Deion Sanders, a former Cowboy and resident of Dallas, was probably the greatest cornerback to play the game. Besides, he was an idol and a hero to Pacman Jones.

Deion especially had decided to mentor Pacman. He welcomed him into the Sanders family, invited him to picnics, and showed him what a good family life was like and how it felt to spend time with friends.

It's one thing to tell someone to stay out of strip clubs and to avoid the wrong people. It is quite another to show him a viable alternative. As Aristotle said, it is not enough to repress bad habits; you need to replace bad habits with good ones.

For me, one exchange epitomized the greatness of Deion's mentoring. In the last episode of "Hard Knocks" we saw Deion and Pacman out fishing. This is the kind of scene that brings out the cynical side of sportswriters.

The scene had been filmed a couple of days after the NFL Commissioner had reinstated Pacman for the entire season. Obviously, it was very good news.

So Pacman and Deion were discussing the reinstatement, when Deion turned to the younger man and asked him whether he had called the Commissioner to thank him.

Pacman replied that he had sent a letter.

Deion suggested that that was not quite enough. The situation required a phone call.

(You would have thought you were listening to an etiquette coach!)

Anyway, Pacman was not persuaded.

So Deion changed his tactics and offered a hypothetical: Which would you rather receive, he said, a letter from Oprah or a phone call from Oprah.

Pacam got the point.

Call it a dialogue between youth and experience, between the troubled 24 year-old and the forty-something All Star. Obviously, Deion understood something that young people simply do not think about: the way that small gestures can improve relationships and build character.

A phone call is more personal and more gracious than a letter. It is certainly better than a text message. A phone call requires you to stand up like a man. Roger Goodell had given Pacman a great opportunity; Pacman owed him that much respect.

More than that, Deion knew how to persuade Pacman to do it. He taught him to put himself in someone else's shoes. How do you feel when someone important sends you a letter? How do you feel when that same person calls you on the phone?

The least we can say is that this approach does not lend itself to drama. Thankfully, for everyone involved.

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