Same old Cowboys, just different image machine

On the NFL

April 07, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

William Bennett, who wrote "The Book of Virtues," lamented the Dallas Cowboys' off-field problems in an interview with Sports Illustrated last week.

"In the old days, the Cowboys were great, and you looked up to them. Now it's different. Now you look down on them. . . . I think the Cowboys are hurting the country's morale. As one Texan said to me recently, 'If this is America's team, then woe is America.' "

Bennett's comments are a tribute to the image machine run in the old days by Tex Schramm, who turned the Cowboys into America's Team with the help of NFL Films.

The Cowboys of this era haven't done anything the Cowboys of the past didn't do, but in the past it didn't ruin the team image that Schramm carefully cultivated.

If Bennett wants to find out what the Cowboys were like two decades ago, he might check his library to read Pete Gent's "North Dallas Forty," a thinly disguised fictional account of the dark side of the Cowboys in those days.

If Bennett prefers nonfiction, he could try Lance Rentzel's searing "When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow," or Hollywood Henderson's "Out of Control" about his drug use and playing Super Bowl XIII while high on cocaine.

The difference in those days was that sports didn't get the attention it does today. There was no cable TV, no ESPN, no sports talk radio. The league also didn't test for drug use.

It also helped that Tom Landry was the coach and Roger Staubach the quarterback. They had such impeccable reputations that the organization was barely tarnished by those incidents.

By contrast, current owner Jerry Jones and coach Barry Switzer have given the team an image of being out of control, so when Clayton Holmes and Leon Lett are suspended for drug use, Erik Williams is charged with sexual assault and Michael Irvin is indicted on drug charges, it seems to reinforce the team's bad image.

Jones has to be concerned because corporate America frowns on being associated with that type of image. It could hamper the deals Jones likes to make.

The irony is that the Cowboys probably don't have a serious drug problem. A team filled with players strung out on drugs doesn't win three Super Bowls in four years. What the Cowboys have is an arrogance problem. What Jones has to do is find ways to get his players to become more discreet.

The real problem is that NFL players are high-paid celebrities who think they can get away with almost anything. They're usually right, and don't expect it to change much.

Look at Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips. He's on probation after pleading no contest last year to charges of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, but he was allowed to play in the Fiesta Bowl and is likely to go in the top five in the draft.

The message is that as long as a player produces on the field he can do what he wants off the field.

The drug policy

A byproduct of the Irvin incident is that the league's controversial drug policy took another hit. The test results are supposed to be confidential, but results often leak out.

Last week, it was reported that several Dallas offensive players tested positive, but the results were thrown out because the tests were given April 28, even though May 1 is the beginning of the drug-testing period. The league conceded the tests were thrown out, but said the Cowboys weren't informed whether any players had tested positive.

The fact the league couldn't get the test dates right in the first place did nothing to boost confidence in the program.

Of course, if the league really was concerned about drugs, it would ban beer advertising during games. Many of its players get arrested on drunken driving charges.

Draft update

It appears that Southern Cal wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who visited the New York Jets last week, will be the draft's top pick.

The word out of New York is that owner Leon Hess doesn't want the team taking Phillips because of his off-the-field problems. The team gambled when it gave Carlton Haselrig another chance last year and it backfired on them.

But the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were considered likely to take Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy with the second pick, are now interested in trading down.

The St. Louis Rams, who are expected to announce tomorrow they've obtained the sixth pick from the Washington Redskins for defensive lineman Sean Gilbert, are interested in trading with Arizona for the third choice and taking Phillips.

Arizona isn't interested in Phillips. The team found out what a public relations problem Phillips can be when Nebraska coach Tom Osborne was bashed for playing him. The Cardinals need to sell tickets and Phillips wouldn't be a popular pick. Phillips needs to go to a team that sells out.

Bo Bollinger, Arizona's director of college scouting, said, "Part of your success in football is not just ability and performance, it's character. People should be accountable for what they do."

But the Rams appear ready to grab him if they can trade up.

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