The Cowboys signed undrafted free agent La'El Collins Thursday, and the world was quick and resounding in its verdict: this was another example of Dallas signing a player with character issues. We all watched as Collins, widely considered to be a first-round prospect, tumbled off the draft board as police investigated the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Brittney Mills.
The punch line was easy. Collins was involved in a criminal case, and now he is a Dallas Cowboy. After all, they already have Josh Brent, whose drunk driving accident led to the death of his friend, and Greg Hardy, who was convicted of domestic abuse -- allegedly choking his girlfriend, then throwing her on a pile of guns -- but avoided punishment at his appeal trial after the victim couldn't be found to testify. The Cowboys have made it clear they don't mind if one of their players did bad things in the past.
The thing is, Collins doesn't have a criminal past. According to the facts as we know, Collins had nothing to do with the death of his ex. He was allegedly over an hour away when she was killed. A paternity test by police showed he was not the father of her son. The police do not consider him a suspect or person of interest.
It's reasonable that teams passed on Collins. If he had been involved in that murder case, he would have been a waste of a draft pick. They opted to pick other talented players instead of risking using a pick and finding out days later that he would never play football.
The Cowboys watched this unfold, and now that it seems likely that Collins likely did nothing, they signed him. There is no character flaw. There's just a guy who was in the wrong place in the wrong time.
It's the same thing that happened with fellow Cowboys rookie Randy Gregory. A first-round talent, "character flaws" like the fact that Gregory smokes marijuana to deal with anxiety saw him fall to the third round. Peter King went so far to describe Gregory's history of depression and anxiety as "character flaws," leading to a public shaming as people explained that mental illness is not a moral weakness.
Like with Collins, I understand why teams passed on Gregory. Depression and anxiety don't make someone a bad person, and I don't think taking recreational drugs does either. If I ran an NFL team, I like to think I would've picked him in spite of his issues, hoping he can work through them. But mental health issues or failed drug tests can certainly keep players from playing. That's something teams have to consider as they use their draft picks and free agency dollars.
It's an NFL team's job to evaluate human beings. Sometimes these human beings do things off the field that potentially endanger their ability to play football, and it makes sense for NFL teams to be concerned about these things. Sometimes these things are stupid things. Sometimes these things are bad things. Sometimes these things aren't things at all.
In the case of Collins, it doesn't seem like it was anything. He had nothing to do with the murder, but because the draft coincided with the brief period of time when Collins was being questioned by police, he lost millions of dollars. In the case of Gregory, it seems like a personal thing that requires help, guidance and support.
Lumping Collins and Gregory -- a person who did nothing wrong, and a person struggling to be their best self -- in with Brent and Hardy -- people who, whether recklessly or intentionally, caused physical harm to others -- isn't just unfair, it's dangerous. It blinds our morality. It paints every player with potential off-the-field issues as "bad."
If we're going to simultaneously watch football and have a conscience, "character flaws" can't be a catch-all term. Otherwise, we blend in the unlucky with the monsters.