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DeSean Jackson, the 27-year-old wide receiver who’s known as much by his on-the-field-explosiveness as he is for his bratty behavior, was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles last Friday, ending weeks of speculation that the team was looking to unload the 3-time Pro Bowler. The decision was announced within minutes of the publication of an article by NJ.com that suggests that DeSean Jackson has "connections" to members of the Crips gang.

Eliot Shorr-Parks and A.J. Perez, the co-authors of the piece, point to four bits of circumstantial evidence. These are:

  1. DeSean Jackson is “associated” with Theron Shakir who is a Crips member and was on trial for what was characterized as gang-related murder.
  2. DeSean Jackson’s name appeared in several documents found at a South Los Angeles business where a gang-related murder happened outside the premises after a party.
  3. DeSean Jackson posted a series of photos to Instagram that showed him throwing up what many would consider a gang sign.
  4. DeSean Jackson was previously arrested.

By stringing these pieces of information together, along with the headline “DeSean Jackson’s gang connections troubling to Eagles,” Shorr-Parks and Perez imply—this being the operative word, since they never actually blurt it out—that Jackson and the Crips gang are inappropriately intertwined.

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But the evidence of Jackson’s “gang connections” doesn’t amount to much at all.

The first is Jackson’s ties to Theron Shakir. Shakir and another man were arrested for the shooting of Taburi Watson, a 14-year-old who allegedly flashed a rival gang sign at the two of them, who were reportedly Crips. Shakir was acquitted of all charges pertaining to this case, which the article reported.

And what was DeSean Jackson’s involvement? None, Shakir happens to be on Jackson’s record label. There’s no connection between the football player and the shooting, something that the NJ.com piece confirmed via a quote from Jane Robinson, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles District attorney.

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“DeSean Jackson was not part of the case,” Robinson told the publication. “He was not a charged defendant. He was not a witness.”

Then there are the Instagram photos. These images have since been deleted, but NJ.com helpfully screengrabbed them. The first two, seen here and here, show Jackson fraternizing with Shakir, who as we—and they—stated, was acquitted of the murder charges. The third photograph, seen here, shows the wide receiver flashing what looks to be a Crips hand sign.

The latter was also paired with mention of an incident where Jackson flashed the same hand sign during a game against the Washington Redskins, along with the following quote from Eric Crosson, a Los Angeles Police Department detective who investigated the Watson murder case.

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“You don't want to see anybody throwing up gang signs like he did in the Redskins game last year," Crosson told the NJ.com writers.

"Those were neighborhood Crip gang signs and he flashed them during a game. He may not be affiliated with the gang, but they don't [ordinarily] take kindly to those not in the gang throwing up those gang signs."

Does this prove Jackson’s connections to the Crips? That’s one explanation for the picture. Another was posited by Donte’ Stallworth, who, along with fellow ex-NFLer Derrick Ward, took to Twitter to defend Jackson.

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“Let me tell you guys a little something… what you see as "gang signs" aren't always gang signs…,” Donte' Stallworth said in a tweet. “Where I'm from in @california, guys show love for the neighborhood where they grew up by throwing signs and have ZERO gang affiliation. Everything isn't always black and white like the media or a lot of people would like to believe…that's rarely the case.”

Lastly, there’s DeSean Jackson’s 2009 arrest. Was it for gang-related activity? Nope.

From the NJ.com article:

“Despite his connections with reputed gang members and police interest in talking to him in connection with two homicides, Jackson’s supporters say he has otherwise comported himself as a model citizen.

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Through court records, however, NJ.com uncovered a previously unreported arrest that occurred in September 2009. Jackson was pulled over for having illegally tinted windows, police said, and during the course of the traffic stop, officers said they discovered marijuana in the vehicle.”

What is the relationship between being pulled over for tinted windows and having connections with a gang? While this arrest may prove that Jackson isn’t a “model citizen” (after all, what model citizen would have tinted windows, much less be in possession of marijuana?), it does nothing to prove that Jackson has gang ties. It’s a red herring that only serves to paint the former Eagle in a negative light.

And that’s my problem with the whole story. It doesn’t actually prove anything beyond the fact that Jackson knows some shady people, posted questionable photos on Instagram, and was pulled over by the cops. What it doesn’t do is concretely establish Jackson’s alleged gang ties. The article and the subsequent firestorm of aggregated stories feel more like character assassination than journalism.

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Jackson, by the way, denied these accusations via a statement released on Friday.

“I would like to make it very clear that I am not and never have been part of any gang,” he wrote. “I am not a gang member and to speculate and assume that I am involved in such activity off the field is reckless and irresponsible.”

In a Google Hangout hosted the same day that the story was published, the reporters defended their work saying they weren't calling Jackson a member of a gang, but that he is closely associated with gang members.
“We are not alleging that his connections are gang members, this is all what the police are saying,” said David Liss of NJ.com. “We are not saying that DeSean Jackson is a gang member. He has denied that and our story did not say that, but with all of that in mind, it’s really a story of a guy caught between two worlds."

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No it’s not. It tries to make too much of too little. It strikes me as disingenuous for the reporters not to acknowledge that they were offering an explanation for Jackson’s troubles with the Eagles — that he had fallen under the sway of the Crips.

So why did this story, which relies on quotes from an unnamed source with the Eagles and a police officer who appears to be overly interested in Jackson, get published in the first place? I’m not saying that they did it for the clickbait, but—to borrow the same kind of logic employed by Shorr-Parks and A.J. Perez—any publication would love a story that has been shared on Facebook more than 22,000 times and on Twitter 8,000 times.

Yes, Jackson grew up in a neighborhood where gangs are prevalent, and he himself has acknowledged this, according to sportswriter Monty Poole, who accompanied the wide receiver on a trip to a prison where he spoke to inmates.

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“Jackson said something else that struck a chord: Gangbangers, sensing his bright athletic future, protected him, insulating him from danger,” Poole wrote. “The thugs told him he was going places, and they did not want to be responsible for shattering his dream.”

There’s a stark difference between being from a place where gang activity takes place and actually being connected to a gang. That would be like saying that I have connections to drug cartels because I grew up going to school with people who are actually cartel members.

If NJ.com really wanted to do a story on “a guy caught between two worlds,” they would have actually ventured into where DeSean Jackson grew up instead of relying on statements made by two individuals (the police officer and the unnamed Eagle source) who aren’t from his neighborhood. Had they done that, they would have picked up on the nuances of a place where opportunity is scarce.

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It could very well be that Shorr-Parks’s and Perez’s indirect assertions are true,
that Jackson is connected to the Crips. But to be able to publish that story, you need a smoking gun, something these NJ.com reporters didn’t have. Running this story shows poor judgment by NJ.com. But hey, at least the hundreds of thousands of page views are worth it, right?

Fidel Martinez is an editor at Fusion.net. He's also a Texas native and a lifelong El Tri fan.