The NFL has overreacted on gang signs   

Updated: July 23, 2008, 10:53 AM ET

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There was one particular hand gesture that came to mind when I heard the NFL will be intensely scrutinizing players' hand signals for possible gang signs next season. And let's just say the response I thought of is the same gesture Michael Vick gave Atlanta Falcons fans.

Roger Goodell

Ben Liebenberg/Getty Images

Roger Goodell is trying to clean up the NFL. But where's the evidence of gang signs?

I'm usually not opposed to a league being proactive, but in this case not only has the NFL gone too far, it has successfully insinuated to the public that the league is full of Doughboys and O-Dogs.

Sports leagues have a right to protect their image. Doing so often rubs players the wrong way, but sometimes it's what is best for the league and its players. NBA players rebuffed the league dress code, but ultimately it was for their own good. An undying allegiance to Phat Farm and Jesus pieces was costing the league and the players money at the box office. When corporate sponsors are uncomfortable and reluctant to spend, the players don't make as much as they possibly can. Besides, with any job, there is nothing wrong with instituting a standard of decorum.

But the NFL's latest move is not about decorum or even petrified sponsors. It's just a league overreaction, and a reminder to the players that they -- and not the coaches and owners -- are under the rule of a stern commissioner.

An NFL official told the Los Angeles Times this week that the league was focusing its attention on players' hand gestures because of an overblown incident involving Paul Pierce during the NBA playoffs. After a scrum with Atlanta's Al Horford in the first round of the playoffs, Pierce flashed what the NBA deemed "menacing gestures" toward the Hawks' bench and was fined $25,000. Pierce vehemently denied making a gang sign.

According to the Times, if a game officials sees a "suspicious hand gesture," he must alert the league, which will be hiring gang experts to review game tapes.

"We were always suspicious that [gang-related hand signals] might be happening," Mike Pereira, the NFL's vice president of officiating, told the L.A. Times. "But the Paul Pierce thing is what brought it to light. When he was fined … that's when we said we need to take a look at it and see if we need to be aware of it."

Being more aware is generally a good thing, and I'm certainly not suggesting the NFL look the other way on something as serious as gang violence. But by responding to a situation in another pro league, the NFL successfully planted a stereotype about its own -- namely, that the league is filled with Bloods and Crips. The next time a player throws up an ode to his fraternity in the end zone, Johnny Consumer is going to be thinking: "Drive-by."

The last thing the NFL should want to do is add to the perception that players are out of control. We can get that idea without the league's help, even though NFL rule breakers are the exception, not the rule.

Maybe the NFL decided now was a good time to reiterate its tough-on-crime stance because of some of the criminal shenanigans that have taken place the past week. Jaguars wide receiver Matt Jones was charged with felony drug possession, former Viking Darrion Scott received a three-game league suspension for putting a plastic bag over the head of his 2-year-old son, and Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw was released from jail after serving time for a probation violation.

Time to show everyone who's the boss.

What's lost is that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest gang affiliation was even an issue for the NFL. When asked on Friday if the NFL had a gang problem, league spokesperson Greg Aiello quickly issued a strong denial. So why is the NFL creating smoke, when it's adamant there's not an actual fire?

"What they've done is publicize the solution without giving us any information on the problem," said David Cornwell, an Atlanta-based sports attorney who once served as the NFL's assistant general counsel.

All this does is ease a path to stereotyping. Even if a game official witnessed a "suspicious hand gesture," how exactly could the NFL prove intent?

In my old Detroit neighborhood, kids and adults use hand signals all the time, but they represent neighborhood pride, not gang activity.

These days, players are so creative they invent their own signals. Doug Christie, possibly the most whipped man in the history of professional sports, used to send hand gestures to his wife, Jackie, after made shots and free throws. Jason Kidd did the same on foul shots as an ode to his ex-wife, Joumana. Steve McNair put up his fraternity sign on touchdowns. And sometimes, players merely copy what they see from hip-hop videos, unaware of what those hand signals mean. It's naive, but imitation is the root of pop culture.

I understand the league must be educated, and part of its job is to anticipate problems beforehand. But by all accounts, the NFL was already taking care of that. It has done a terrific job of alerting players to potential dangers at the annual rookie symposium, and last year the players were required to view a video on gangs.

Understandably the NFL is hypersensitive because of the murder of former Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams, who was reportedly killed after a confrontation with gang members. Williams wasn't affiliated with a gang and unfortunately was mostly a victim of bad timing and coincidence, but the NFL still feels obligated to prove it is doing something.

But league commissioner Roger Goodell imitating Ronald Reagan isn't always the way to go. No one is saying Goodell wasn't warranted in recently implementing a strengthened code of conduct policy, which prohibits gang signals. But this latest measure makes Goodell come off as infatuated with punishment and glorying in the role of savior of the unlawful.

"It has an element of institutional racism to it, frankly," Cornwell said. "It's harmful when the Michael Vicks, Jamal Lewises and Ray Lewises of the world send the message that most black players are on the edge of lawlessness, and the obvious and most appropriate representative to push back that view is the union. Unless the union holds the league accountable, I don't think the league is going to do it on its own. There's a benefit to it. They get credit for it in the media all the time."

The NFL's heart is in the right place, but there are times when even the most well-intentioned rule can be harmful. Case in point: David Dicks, the police chief in Flint, Mich., has come under fire for ordering officers to arrest people who wear their pants too low and expose what we'd rather not see. Personally I detest seeing young men "sag," because they're copying prisoners. But even I can't argue that Dicks' directive is unconstitutional and provides a convenient way for cops to racially profile.

"I do understand what they're trying to do [in the NFL], but I don't think it's a move in the right direction," said Carl Taylor, a senior fellow at Michigan State University who has studied gangs, violence and youth culture for years and is the principal investigator for the Michigan Gang Research Project. "I also understand why they don't want guys doing [gang signs]. It's also interesting because you open that Pandora's box. A lot of people don't know the Ku Klux Klan has signs too. Are you going to police all signs?

"The mere fact that they've done this, we're looking at black and Latino athletes. It does have the undercurrent of racial stereotyping, but also youth culture stereotyping."

The NFL wants to make money and have a clean league. But it has to be careful. In its thirst to appear tough, fans can be left with the wrong impression.

Jemele Hill can be reached at


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