This is not how you do accountability.
This NFL off-season, like many NFL off-seasons in recent memory, players for the Dallas Cowboys have been involved in a slew of off-the-field “incidents.”
On Monday, Jerry Jones’s team decided it had finally had enough, announcing it had cut third-year wide receiver Lucky Whitehead after learning there was a warrant for his arrest because he missed a court appearance related to a shoplifting charge.
The only problem? The very next day, the police announced that it was a case of mistaken identity.
That’s right — the one time the Cowboys take quick and definitive disciplinary action against one of their players for off-field misconduct, it’s in response to a minor offense, committed by a complete stranger, in a city 1,300 miles from Dallas.
Look, this whole situation is confounding. The man who was arrested for shoplifting in Woodbridge, Virginia provided Whitehead’s name and social security number to officers, and while he didn’t have identification, he reportedly looked similar enough to the photo that cops had on file of Whitehead that they didn’t question it. (In other words, he was a black man.)
But on Monday, the same day the warrant was issued and the Cowboys and media became aware of the situation, Whitehead’s agent supplied police with a plane ticket that proved the wide receiver wasn’t even in the same state at the time of the arrest.
Police are now searching for the actual shoplifter, and released a statement on Tuesday saying, “The police department regrets the impact these events had on Mr. Whitehead and his family.”
But that apology is of little use to Whitehead, considering he’s already lost his job, and the Cowboys are showing no signs of going back on their decision.
Tuesday after practice, Garrett did his best Marshawn Lynch impression, offering the same vague answer to every question about Whitehead. Here’s a partial transcript provided by ESPN — there’s really no need to read the full thing, as it just goes on like this.
On whether he regrets Whitehead’s being cut and whether he will address the team about the move:
Garrett: Yesterday we made a decision that was deemed to be in the best interest of the Dallas Cowboys. We’re standing by that decision. We’re going to move on.
On whether the decision to cut Whitehead was based on the idea of the arrest:
Garrett: Yesterday we made a decision we felt was the best interest of the Dallas Cowboys. We’re going to stand by that decision. We’re going to move on.
On whether it is fair to Whitehead to say the same thing over and over:
Garrett: It’s the truth. We made a decision we felt was in the best interest of the Dallas Cowboys.
On whether there are some people working for the Dallas Cowboys who are just too stupid to work for this team:
Garrett: I’ll stand by the statement that I made. We made a decision yesterday that we felt was in the best interest of the Dallas Cowboys. We’re going to stand by that decision. We’re going to move forward.
Of course, on Monday, Garrett was a bit more transparent when he told reporters, “We have built this team with great character guys,” as a way to explain why the Cowboys immediately released Whitehead upon finding out there was a warrant out for his arrest.
But it seems that when it comes to the Cowboys, the phrase “great character” has great flexibility.
The Cowboys still have multiple players on their team who have been involved in off-the-field “incidents.” According to the NFL player arrests database maintained by USA Today, on July 4, Cowboys linebacker Damien Wilson was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in Frisco, Texas after “allegedly brandishing rifle at a man.” On May 29, Cowboys cornerback Nolan Carrol was arrested for a DUI. Both players remain on the team.
This week, Cowboys rookie cornerback Jourdan Lewis was on trial for domestic violence in Michigan — he was found not guilty on Tuesday.
Star Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot has been dealing with legal troubles since his Cowboys career began last season. He is still under investigation for domestic violence, and this offseason alone, he grabbed a woman’s breast during a St. Patrick’s Day parade, was allegedly involved in a fight at a bar in Dallas that left one man with a broken nose (no charges were filed), and was convicted of a misdemeanor after being caught driving 100 miles per hour, 30 mph over the speed limit (he is appealing the conviction).
All this from the team that infamously signed Greg Hardy after his domestic violence suspension and praised him for his leadership skills.
In other words, this is not a team that shies away from players dealing with legal troubles.
To be sure, Whitehead’s tenure with the Cowboys wasn’t exactly without controversy. Last year, Whitehead missed a meeting and the team left him in Dallas when they traveled to play the New York Giants. Last week, his dog was held ransom by a rapper Boogotti Kasino. The crime — and eventual reunion — was broadcast on social media. Whitehead praised the “Dallas Cowboys family” for its “kindness and compassion” through the whole ordeal.
He was also not a starting-caliber talent — he primarily played on special teams, and would have been fighting for a roster spot on the team anyways.
But a case of mistaken identity — something that disproportionately impacts black men — should not have cost Whitehead a chance to compete for a spot on the team. Ultimately, there has to be a middle ground between no accountability at all for players based on off-the-field behavior, and reactive, rash decisions that strip a man of his livelihood. And that middle ground shouldn’t be contingent on your talent level.
Dallas Cowboys release player who was wrongly accused of shoplifting was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.