This was an excellent story in the Washington Post by Kent Babb about DeSean Jackson and his alleged gang ties. As usual, I have a couple of thoughts on this topic (and story):
1. The gang affiliation angle, originally outlined in an NJ.com report, never gave me great pause when it came to Jackson. Before I'd even heard about the gang questions, I'd heard other things that gave me more pause -- about his professional conduct. Clearly they weren't enough to stop the Redskins from signing him. But the point on the gang stuff, which many have made, is that enough players come from tough situations who have similar ties. To judge Jackson based on his friendships would be difficult. Jackson has never been accused of any wrongdoing here, just guilt by association and appearing in some questionable photos.
2. Clearly Jackson's past has helped fuel his success. There's a reason smaller guys like him can still end up having productive careers. Take Santana Moss, for example. He grew up in some difficult places in South Florida. I remember a conversation with him a few years ago in which he talked about waking up and seeing drug dealers or prostitutes asleep in the back yard, or syringes in their bushes. Numerous issues. Moss is one of the most professional players I've dealt with in my time covering the Redskins. Don't judge by the background. While it may hurt some, it clearly has helped others achieve in a brutal sport. Everyone's background shapes their drive in some way; I know mine did. I can't relate to Moss' or Jackson's background, but I can relate to how they're shaped by that past.
3. The part that jumped out to me in this story: The words of Jackson's mom and brother. They do not sound like enablers who would claim Jackson is just misunderstood or always in the right. No. His mother, Gayle Jackson, clearly has spoken with him about perceptions and more. She told Babb, "DeSean is one of the most loyal people. Too loyal for me." His brother, Byron Jackson, called Jackson's gestures in the picture that appeared in the NJ.com story -- whether gang symbols or not-- "immature." And his mom said he shouldn't have posed for the picture. “When I look at it, it doesn't look like a gang sign to me. But it's questionable, and anything that's questionable, in my mind, don't do it.”
4. Players need to wean themselves from their past at their own pace, with definite nudges along the way. Read this Andrew Brandt piece on The MMQB as an example. You don't have to divorce yourself from it, but you need to surround yourself with good influences from that past. Not everyone from that past is a gang member. Plenty of good people rise up from tough situations. I have no idea about how Jackson is in this regard. But Babb spoke to one long-time Jackson friend, Khalid Rahim, who did say, “Everybody had to stop; certain people had to quit hanging around.” To survive long-term in the NFL, this is a must.
5. The real issue to me always has been his conduct within the team structure: work ethic, practice habits, etc. This is where Jackson must excel if he wants his career to last longer and be as productive as 2013. Most coaches I've been around love using players in their 30s as examples of how to achieve a good career. They've had to work a certain way to reach that level. I don't think everyone comes in working that way; it must be learned and processed and developed. If Jackson matures here, then he has a chance to be productive for several more years. If not, then his career will go a different way. Always does. It's up to him.