The news that the Dallas Cowboys have imposed a draconian set of disciplinary actions on supremely talented but frequently in-trouble wide receiver Dez Bryant has created a considerable amount of discussion. There are many who wonder just what exactly his problem is. Others don't understand why the team should go to these lengths. Some just think it is not all worth it.
I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do think that this is a situation that needs a deeper look and some background research. For all of us, it is often too easy to toss off a quick, biting comment. I just think there are some complexities and influences that come together in this story that should be considered and weighed before we give our thumbs up or down.
One thing I ran across some time ago was the recent scientific research, based on brain scans and the latest understanding of how our minds actually function, that indicated that the male brain (women are generally a couple of years more advanced at a given age until they reach maturity, so you younger guys should keep that in mind) does not fully mature until age 25. Note that Dez is now 23, and will not turn 25 until 11/04/2013. He is under contract until 2014. In that light, I think the research on maturity is worth investigating to see how this likely affects him.
Warning: Some science content after the jump.
The clearest explanation I could find of what the brain maturity stuff is all about was in an interview with a Dr. Sandra Aamodt on NPR (transcript and link to listen here), a researcher who also wrote a book about the topic, Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College. I want to lay this out because there seem to be a lot of people who just don't accept this idea. I may not convince anyone by presenting this, but I at least want you to understand why I think it is valid and applicable here.
She is asked first just what part of the brain is still developing until age 25.
AAMODT: So the changes that happen between 18 and 25 are a continuation of the process that starts around puberty, and 18 year olds are about halfway through that process. Their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. That's the part of the brain that helps you to inhibit impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal.
And the other part of the brain that is different in adolescence is that the brain's reward system becomes highly active right around the time of puberty and then gradually goes back to an adult level, which it reaches around age 25 and that makes adolescents and young adults more interested in entering uncertain situations to seek out and try to find whether there might be a possibility of gaining something from those situations.
In simpler terms, the ability to control impulsive behavior is lessened, it is difficult for these young men to see the consequences of their actions, and they are prone to increased risk taking.
While many might question this, it has long been understood in certain institutions. One that clearly grasps it is the military. The vast majority of frontline combat troops are between 18 and 25. The reason is simple. They are far more likely to take chances in combat that place themselves in danger than older, wiser soldiers. It now turns out that it is not just because they are less experienced, but they are mentally more inclined to engage in dangerous activities. It is bad for them, but it a sad necessity for an army.
To use a less dramatic example, talk to almost any law enforcement official (as I do on a daily basis). They will tell you the biggest pain in the badge to deal with is a kid in his late teens and early twenties. He is as big and strong as he is ever likely to be, and will go out of control over almost nothing. Once they get up around 30 or so, even the worst criminals at least do not tend to resist the officers who apprehend them. They realize that they are the ones likely to wind up in the emergency room if they do, and usually come along fairly quietly.
There was also a question that pertains very directly to some of the incidents that Dez has been caught up in, like the famous sagging issue at the mall.
AAMODT: Well, actually, one of the side effects of these changes in the reward system is that adolescents and young adults become much more sensitive to peer pressure than they were earlier or will be as adults.
So, for instance, a 20 year old is 50 percent more likely to do something risky if two friends are watching than if he's alone.
This speaks directly to why there is a plan to have someone "minding" Dez at all times. They will serve as a buffer between him and his old crowd, as well as his family, and ideally will become a surrogate form of peer pressure, only in this case to do the right thing.
And one other response from the interview really applies directly to Bryant's situation.
AAMODT: One of the things that deprived childhood causes is problems with prefrontal cortex function, so somebody who has had an unstable home life is more likely to have trouble with planning and organizing behavior and with inhabiting impulses than somebody who has had a stable life.
"Unstable" is an understatement for the chaotic childhood Bryant was subjected to.
While I do not hold that misbehavior or criminality is excused by your past, I do think that the evidence here is that Dez Bryant was clearly predisposed to have trouble dealing with his sudden ascension to sports stardom and wealth. It is a pattern seen over and over, not just in sports, but in entertainment as well. Young people suddenly hit it big, and wind up falling completely apart. Race and gender have little to do with this. Does the name Lindsay Lohan conjure up any images? Rather, it is mostly about how poorly equipped many are to deal with things. Most of us who have gotten past our mid-twenties without totally screwing up our lives did it because we had some externally imposed guidelines to fall back on. For most of us, it was a parent or other authority figure we trusted enough pay some attention to. I never got into drugs or binge drinking because my parents had done a good job building up an aversion to that. Conversely, they didn't focus on hammering me about remaining chaste until marriage, so when I went off to college, unchasteness was prevalent. But I still was cautious and took certain precautions that limited my contributions to the gene pool, so some responsibility still held sway.
Dez had precious little of that for most of his life. It was not until he began to emerge as the athletic beast that he is that someone was willing to intervene and try to get him straightened out. And while his high school coach, the late John Outlaw, should be lauded for getting him as far as he did, he was still motivated to some degree by what the young Bryant could do on the football field.
Now magnify that a hundred, or a thousand, or even a million times. The Dallas Cowboys not only have a huge financial investment and the draft picks they traded to get Bryant on the line, but he is a big part of the plans for the next few seasons, at least until his contract runs out. He is a somewhat risky investment that could pay huge dividends (just remember that almost-catch in the San Diego game), and the steps being taken are not at all unreasonable in that light.
I also will contend that he is not undeserving. Dez Bryant is not a thug. From all accounts, he is a very likable person who really means no harm to anyone. His transgressions have all been judgement driven. They don't derive from trying to beat someone, or carrying illegal heat, or wanting to get into drug dealing or dog fighting. They just spring from not grasping the consequences of spending money foolishly or being with bad influences (sadly, his mother is clearly in that latter category). Jerry Jones is legitimately angry about this, but I think it is not with any rancor. I think Jones, probably more than even the coaching staff, sees Bryant as someone who may be able to make it to emotional maturity with the right help, including a little "tough love".
I hope that the Cowboys pull it off. Not just because I think this is a potential All-Pro type player. I hope they pull it off because this literally means his life and future. If it works, Dez Bryant can be a successful, happy human being. We can always use a few more of those.