The Oregonian columnist John Canzano raised an important point in his January 5 piece about a New Year’s Eve murder allegedly committed by one of former Portland Trailblazer Zach Randolph’s running buddies (at least while Randolph was with that team). Although nothing links Randolph to the murder, for Canzano the incident raises serious questions about which kinds of personal demons a professional sports franchise should accommodate and which ones should be deal breakers. 

My understanding of the columnist’s main answer to that question is that he believes sports teams should consider the types of people in a player’s inner circle as a major clue about the player’s true character. Canzano goes further to suggest that the Portland Trail Blazers and all other professional sports teams should stay away from signing any player who hangs around with people who are likely to be involved in criminal activities, despite how talented such a player might be.
I agree with Canzano in principle. Since teams must tightly manage their brand images anyway, they’d be wise to use a longer range preventive approach in order to avoid unnecessary personnel crises situations. Of course, we’re not talking about some exact science of predicting what a player’s best friend will do at such-and-such a night club next Saturday. It’s more a matter of establishing a fair, clear, and reasonable set of character standards that would contractually apply to players and be extended in limited ways to members of their inner circles. I guess the kind of screening process that I’m thinking about here is similar to the kinds of financial performance incentives that are routinely built into players’ contracts; except these incentives would be for players’ off-the-field performance.
I suspect, though, that most sports teams’ front offices aren’t even close to being set up to develop and implement measurable character standards and conduct the kinds of thorough background checks that would inspire confidence among those who are responsible for building and protecting the team’s brand image. And yes, I believe the clubs probably should pay more attention to this important marketing issue. However, I’m not one to place the onus on only one side of any issue. Ultimately, I think the players and their professional support teams (managers, agents, publicists, etc.) should also always be working toward presenting the players as total on- and off-the-field packages. This would enable such players to then make the most compelling cases possible that they’d be great assets to any team for which they’re trying to join.
This brings me to the issue that I raised in my heading above. In order for a player to make good on that total package brand imaging concept, he’d have to be willing and able to make some really hard choices about who to keep in his life. As you may or may not be able to imagine, this type of choice is extremely hard because rich and famous pro athletes already have a hard enough time figuring out who’s really their friend and who’s just trying to get some of their goodies. But as hard as it may be, being a high-profile celebrity means taking responsibility for making the choices that support the brand image that the celebrity wants to maintain. After all, the business of professional sports is all about being effective on the field of play and being a positive role model for young people and fans in general off the field.
Now I’m not suggesting that there’s an easy answer to the question of who a pro athlete should kick out of his inner circle. I am, however, suggesting that athletes shouldn’t run away from such tough decisions. Besides, it’s hugely important for each of us – whether we’re celebrities or not – to develop a clear sense of the limits of our loyalty. In other words, we all need a workable set of standards to help us decide when to let go of someone we’ve considered as a friend if that person turns out to be one who’s just taking advantage of our generosity or kindness without adding any reciprocal value to our lives.
Letting go of people seems counterintuitive and perhaps even counterproductive when you consider the awful prospect of ending up alone. But in the end, being surrounded by people who are only out to steal your joy is a much more miserable place to be than being alone with yourself (unless all you ever do is beat yourself up). Clearly, loyalty has its limits, and should always be a two-way street. When it flows only in one direction, that’s a formula headed for personal disaster, and for a pro athlete, such personal disasters can quickly morph into professional disasters as well. After all, there’s profound wisdom in the old folk saying, “I can do badly all by myself!”