Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Losing the right to play on Sunday’s – adios Terry “Tank” Johnson

From the day boys play their first day of Pop Warner Football, to their days as high school heroes, to the chance few get to shine on Saturday’s being true to their school those who choose to play football dream of playing on Sunday’s. If you are a football player and you’re good enough to play on Sunday’s it means one thing and one thing alone – you’re good enough to play in the National Football League. Monday a member of the Chicago Bears lost the right to play on Sunday’s.

Just days after Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson’s latest skirmish with the legal system (Johnson was pulled over and arrested by police in Arizona at 3:30 a.m. Friday) the Bears finally said enough was enough cutting Johnson from their roster Monday, ending a saga which included Johnson being placed under house arrest late in the 2006 NFL regular season. Johnson missed the Bears last regular season home game, played in the teams’ two home playoff games and had to obtain a judges order before he could play in Super Bowl XLI in Miami.

“We are upset and embarrassed by Tank’s actions last week,” said general manager Jerry Angelo. “He compromised the credibility of our organization. We made it clear to him that he had no room for error. Our goal was to help someone through a difficult period in his life, but the effort needs to come from both sides. It didn’t, and we have decided to move on.”

Johnson was released from Cook County Jail May 13 after serving 60 days for a probation violation stemming from a gun charge. On June 4, he was suspended by the NFL without pay for the first eight games of the regular season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell gave Johnson an opportunity to reduce the suspension to six games in part if the 25-year-old had “no further adverse involvement with law enforcement.”

While in jail, Johnson was visited by several members of the Bears organization including general manager Jerry Angelo, coach Lovie Smith, chairman of the board Michael McCaskey and several teammates.

“A lot of people within our organization gave extra time and energy to support Tank: players, coaches and our front office,” Smith said. “We did our best to establish an environment for him to move forward. Ultimately, Tank needed to live up to his side of the deal.”

Playing in 46 games with 15 starts in three seasons with the Bears, Johnson registered 101 tackles, nine sacks, six tackles for loss, four pass breakups and one forced fumble.

Johnson’s downward spiral began last Dec. 14 when he was charged with six misdemeanor counts of possession of a firearm without a Firearm Owner’s Identification card following a police raid on his Gurnee home.

The following night, Johnson and his friend, William Posey, who had been arrested and charged with felony marijuana possession during the police raid at Johnson’s home, ventured to a Chicago nightclub, where Posey was shot and killed.

Although Johnson wasn’t directly involved in the incident, the poor judgment he displayed by being present at the club during the shooting earned him a one-game suspension from the Bears.

He was on probation at the time after he had pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge that resulted after a nightclub valet alerted police about seeing a gun in his car.

Johnson initially violated his probation in February 2006 when he was arrested outside a Chicago nightclub. But prosecutors later dropped battery and resisting arrest charges.

Because he has accrued only three seasons toward the NFL pension plan, Johnson is subject to waivers, but it is unlikely, given his circumstances, that the former University of Washington star will be claimed by another club. If he is not, Johnson will become a free agent able to sign with any team.

Johnson, 25, had two seasons remaining on his original rookie contract with Chicago, at base salaries of $510,000 for 2007 and $548,750 in 2008. NFL contracts are not guaranteed. Johnson the 47th overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft signed a five-year contract with a $1,725,000 bonus. The bonus had been prorated (against the NFL salary cap) over the five-year term of the contract. The remaining $690,000 (already paid to Johnson will count against the Bears 2007 salary cap total(s).

The Legend of Tank won’t soon be forgotten (nor should it be). In December, Johnson the Bears starting defensive tackle had a bad week even by NFL standards. On Thursday December 14, Johnson was arrested at his Chicago home and charged with misdemeanor weapons charges. It was the third time Johnson had been arrested in the last 18 months.

Hours after his arrest Bears general manager Jerry Angelo reportedly warned Johnson he was down to his final chance with the Bears. Early Saturday morning December 16 Johnson’s bodyguard William Posey was murdered in a Chicago nightclub. Johnson was present at the shooting. Johnson did not play that Sunday’s Bears 34-31 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With that win the Bears moved to 12-2 on the season, and clinched home field advantage through the NFC title game. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Chicago for the NFC spot in Super Bowl XLI.

What next for the Bears and Johnson? Literally hours after being told he was down to his last chance to remain a Chicago Bear would general manager Jerry Angelo follow through on his threat to cut the teams ties with their starting defensive tackle, a key member of the Bears defense? Would the Bears really consider jeopardizing their chances to win a Super Bowl because a player had behaved badly? At least in December how Tank performed on Sunday mattered more to the Bears than Johnson’s behavior Monday’s through Saturday’s.

"We have talked to Tank," Angelo said Friday according to The Chicago Tribune. "We talk to all of our players … and we spend an inordinate amount of time educating our players on all matters outside of football. It is something we did discuss with Tank."

Angelo acknowledged that "each situation is a little bit different and we look at each situation," but he added, "At some point, a player has to be held accountable for his actions."

Johnson was living a scene from the short-lived ESPN series Playmakers. One episode of Playmakers featured the teams’ star rookie running back involved in a shooting with friends he had well before he was a college or NFL star at a nightclub. The fictional character is asked to decide between telling the truth or stand by his ‘boys from the hood’. The player lies to the police believing the bonds he has with his lifelong friends are more important than telling the truth. But when it comes to NFL players “their boys from the hood” matter more than one can imagine

"I would never disassociate myself from a friend, good or bad," Bears cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., told The Chicago Tribune who was involved in an incident last April that resulted in felony assault charges against Manning and some friends he might have thought better of hanging out with.

"I just wouldn't turn my back on a friend regardless. But the difference is, if they are any kind of friend, they know what I can and can't do. I'm not going to go around acting crazy for the most part. But I definitely wouldn't disassociate myself from them."

The NFL once advised Bears wide receiver Curtis Conway according to The Chicago Tribune report to not return to the Los Angeles neighborhood he grew up in, reminding him he didn’t grow up in the best part of town.

"These guys are your friends and you try your best to still be cordial and stay away from what they do, but everybody is looking for something," Conway said. "More than anything, that's the pressure. Because a guy is [saying] like, 'Come on over and watch the game, have a bite to eat.' And you're sitting there knowing he might have something on him, but then that's your boy. You've been in that house a thousand times.

"After [many] years, I've thought of so many excuses they kind of realize where I stand. And then at some point you just have to tell them, 'Man, I can't get caught up in what's going on.' Some of them understand, some of them don't."

The great irony in regard to Playmakers, which remains a defining moment in the evolution of ESPN (both positive and negative), was the decision ESPN made to cancel the series after being pressured by the National Football League. Monday, Terry "Tank" Johnson’s days as a Chicago Bear ended – finally Johnson’s deviant behavior mattered more to the Bears than his performance on Sunday’s.

While the Bears were doing their best to distance themselves from Tank Johnson, the NFL was holding their annual rookie symposium. A key component of the get together the NFL warning those interested in playing on Sunday’s they be best advised to behave themselves Monday through Saturday.

"We're concerned about them as men," Goodell said at the league's rookie symposium in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., shortly before Johnson's release was announced according to various media reports. "How do they become not only great NFL players, but how do they become great men? How do they conduct themselves appropriately for the remainder of their life, not just when they're in the National Football League?"

"I'd be naive to think everyone would be able to understand it," Goodell said. "But I think we're making players more aware of the standards of behavior. We're giving them more tools and resources to make sure they can make those decisions."

All drafted players (rounds one through seven) attend the seminar – they have no choice but to attend. Once the meeting is over, the players have a complete understanding of the NFL’s new zero tolerance off-field behavior policy, along with how to handle finances and relationships and how to prepare for life after football. But as Goodell pointed out, front and center was the example you’re expected to make if you’re lucky enough to play on Sunday’s. And as Goodell pointed out according to an ESPN report it’s the bad apples in the barrel that are getting all of the attention,

"You could see the players were engaged," Goodell said. "They asked very good questions, very responsive questions to things that I said."

"The vast majority of our players do," Goodell said. "There's a select few that don't. And they get a lot of focus ... and have a negative impact on the other players in our league and the NFL in general."

Tank Johnson released a statement Monday evening through his Chicago attorney Lorna Propes:

"I want to thank the Bears organization and fans for their support during a difficult time," he said. "I regret that I have to leave Chicago under these circumstances and wish my friends at the Chicago Bears nothing but the best."

Will Johnson be missed by his teammates – some of them suggested as much late Monday.

"Tank is one of my closest friends here in Chicago. It's really hard to see him go through some of the things that he has. But I think sometimes the Bears were kind of pushed into a corner because we had been able to support him throughout this whole ordeal. I think you have to be accountable for your actions and the Chicago Bears had to do what was needed."

But at the same time Vasher told ESPN he was surprised that Johnson would be involved in another incident.

"I was really convinced that Tank had more than thought about the time he did in prison or just every other compromising situation that he has been in, not to jeopardize that any further," Vasher said. "It's disheartening for something like that to happen."

And the laundry list of Tank’s legal and personal off-field challenges included:

2005
June 11 -- Charged with unlawful possession of a handgun after police find a fully-loaded 9-mm Ruger in his parked car outside a downtown nightclub.

November

Pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor unlawful gun-possession charge in Cook County. Gets 18 months' probation.

2006

February

Charged with battery and resisting arrest after scuffling with a police officer outside a Rush Street nightclub. Charged with violating probation.

March

February charges, including probation violation, dropped when police officer refuses to proceed with case.

December 14 -- Police raided Johnson's Gurnee home, seize six guns, arrest and charge Johnson's friend and bodyguard William B. Posey with possession of marijuana. Johnson, who is at Halas Hall during the raid, turns himself in and is charged with six gun misdemeanors.

December 15 -- Johnson declared inactive for Dec. 17 game. GM Jerry Angelo publicly and privately warns Johnson: "He has had a history of doing things, and that history has to stop."

December 16, 1:30 a.m. -- About 12 hours after the team's warning, Johnson and Posey went to a River North bar. Posey was shot to death.

December 18 -- Bears talked to NFL about discipline options, but cutting the troubled defensive lineman was ruled out.

December 19 -- Bears announced a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.

2007

February 8 -- Pleaded guilty to violating his probation in a 2005 gun case.

March 15 -- Sentenced to 120 days in jail and fined $2,500 after pleading guilty to violating his probation on a 2005 weapons conviction.

March 16 -- Started sentence at Cook County Jail.

April 30 -- Pleaded guilty in Lake County Court to possession of a firearm without a valid Illinois Firearm Owner's Identification Card, a misdemeanor charge. Sentenced to 45 days in jail with credit for time served in Cook County, meaning no additional jail time.

May 13 -- Released from Cook County Jail after serving 60 days.

June 4 -- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Johnson for eight games but said it could be reduced to six.

Friday, 3:30 a.m. -- Issued a citation for "being impaired to the slightest degree" by Gilbert, Ariz., police. Was going 40 m.p.h. in a 25-m.p.h. zone; submitted blood to determine blood alcohol content.

What if anything can be learnt from the fate that befell Tank Johnson? Everyone no matter who they are needs to be held accountable for their actions – and there’s a price to be paid for deviant behavior. Clearly the message has been sent – playing on Sunday’s in the National Football League is a privilege and not a given right – let’s hope the 224 young men who assembled in Orlando Monday for the NFL’s rookie symposium heard that message loud and clear.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: ESPN, the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press.

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