The League

Michael Kun

Michael Kun

Co-author of The Football Uncyclopedia. He is also the author of six other books and is a practicing attorney.

Context and tone


Twenty years ago, my law school classmate Kevin Mullen was interviewing for a job in Atlanta. Despite the fact that he had never even been to Atlanta. During the interview, they asked him a tough question and were not particularly pleasant about it: "Having never been here, why would you want to work in Atlanta?"

His response: "Why, is there something wrong with it?"

Tough question under the circumstances. Graceful and funny response. And, of course, Kevin got the job.

I thought about that this week when reading far too many articles about the NFL's latest tempest in a teapot. In case you missed it, during their interview, Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland asked potential draft pick Dez Bryant whether his mother was a prostitute. And the Bucs front office asked Myron Rolle how it felt to desert his team when he accepted a Rhodes Scholarship.

This is where you and I are supposed to join in the chorus singing loudly about how wildly inappropriate those questions were.

Offensive! Insulting! Tactless! Deplorable! Revolting! Unspeakable!

Yes, I know that's how we're all supposed to respond. Here's my response instead: yawn.

I say that despite believing they are both excellent players who will excel in the NFL. I say that despite the fact that Bryant has just joined one of my favorite teams and instantly makes them a playoff contender again. (I probably should stop mentioning that I'm a Cowboys fan to a readership based largely in D.C., shouldn't I?). And I say that despite remaining more than a bit shocked that Rolle slipped as far as he did in the draft, and despite being incredibly impressed by Rolle's academic achievements. Getting a Rhodes Scholarship ain't easy, people. Give it a try if you disagree.

Still, my response to this commotion is the same: yawn.

To the reporters who can't seem to stop writing about this, please find something else newsworthy unless you have some additional facts to add to the analysis. To the NFLPA, which denounced Ireland because it feels it needs to disagree with management over everything, you need to pick and choose your battles. Disagreeing over everything is a sign of weakness, not strength. Sitting out a fight every once in a while, or actually agreeing with management, makes you look reasonable. And with the union contract up, looking reasonable in the press is going to mean something.

Now, let's look at each situation separately, starting with Dez Bryant. Without any context, and without knowing the tone of the question, asking an individual during an interview whether his mother was a prostitute is, at the very least, bizarre. At most, it is in fact wildly inappropriate. But context and tone mean everything.

Let me say that again: context and tone mean everything. And we don't know the context and tone. If someone walked up to you at your mother's funeral and asked if she had been a prostitute, you'd have every right to belt him. But what if your mother walked into a room with a low-cut top and a gold skirt, and one of your buddies nudged you and said, "What's the deal? Is your mom turning tricks tonight?" You probably wouldn't be offended, and might even laugh. Context. Tone.

What was the context of the question posed to Dez Bryant? What was the tone? I don't know, and you don't know. According to reports, Bryant's mother dealt drugs and served time in prison. Were Bryant and Ireland discussing Bryant's childhood? Did Bryant himself bring up his mother and her problems? Did Bryant say something that might lead someone to believe that his mother might have been a prostitute?

I don't know, and you don't know.

What if Bryant had said, "I come from a rough background. My mother was a drug dealer, and, um, let's just say she did some other things that were very shameful." If he'd said that, might Ireland reasonably have responded by saying, "Gosh, Dez, I'm so sorry. I hope you're not saying that she's was a prostitute."

Or what if Bryant had said, "My mom used to come home all drugged up with a different guy every night." Would it have been wrong for Ireland to respond by saying, "You're not saying she was a prostitute, are you? That would have been tough to deal with."

We just don't know the context of the question, and we don't know the tone. But if you assume that it was asked during a discussion of Bryant's mother's criminal history and the effect it had on him, you cannot conclude that the question was necessarily inappropriate. It may have been. And it may not have been. Unless and until we know the context and tone of the comment, we can't judge Ireland.

One more point on this issue, if you don't mind. Even putting context and tone aside, is it really insulting to suggest that a drug dealer might be a prostitute? Everyone who is outraged by this seems to be saying, "How dare you defame a drug dealer by saying she may have been a prostitute!" Is being a drug dealer somehow better than being a prostitute? I don't want to argue about whether drugs or prostitution should be legalized, but, until they are, drug dealers and prostitutes are both criminals. The character of neither is affected by mistakenly accusing them of committing the other crime.

Now, let's turn to Myron Rolle. While Bryant was asked a question about a matter that presumably was embarrassing (his mother's criminal history), Rolle was asked about something that presumably is a matter of great pride (his Rhodes Scholarship).

Here, context and tone are less important because we can make an assumption: many of the questions asked during these interviews are meant to test a player's character. The answer is important, but so, too, is the player's demeanor. Does he get upset? Does he lose his temper? Does he get defensive? Is he candid? Does he think quickly? Does he act like a leader? Is his response that of a man or of a child?

Did the Bucs really believe that Rolle had "deserted" his teammates when he accepted a Rhodes Scholarship? Doubtful. (And if anyone has anything negative to say about Rolle accepting the Rhodes Scholarship, it's based on one thing and one thing only: jealousy.)

Did the Bucs official want to see how Rolle would respond when he was accused of deserting his teammates? I'd bet on it. If I'm an official with an NFL team, I'd have a very different opinion of Rolle if he responded, "I don't care because I put myself first" or "It wasn't like we were going to win a championship," than if he said, "I didn't desert my teammates. I support them, and they support me. And they all supported my decision to accept the Rhodes Scholarship because they understood what an honor it was, and because they understood it was an honor I shared with all of them."

It's possible that there was something more to that question, I'll give you that. But regardless of what was intended by the question, Rolle was the smartest person in that room. He should have been able to handle the question deftly, and I suspect he did. And I suspect that Bryant handled the question posed to him deftly, too. They both should understand that questions asked during interviews can be tough. And NFL players need to be tough. It's the nature of the job.

There are many places for sensitive people with delicate emotions to work. The middle of an NFL field isn't one of them.

By Michael Kun  |  April 30, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Draft , Miami Dolphins , NFL , Tampa Bay Buccaneers Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Let them ask | Next: Crossing the line


Please email us to report offensive comments.

The Rhodes scholarship I understand although I don't personally like it. Its a question of being focused on football, and don't think that question doesn't present itself during college as well when an athlete wants to take a rigourous courseload.

There is no comparison between asking someone whether they are focused on football, and asking someone if their mother was a trick.

Posted by: ProfessorWrightBSU | April 30, 2010 7:55 PM

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