The public has never been more educated about the hazards of playing professional football. Film director Billy Cohen showed us the myriad ways players can get finessed for cash by ex-wives, hustlers and financial advisers in the excellent 2012 “30 for 30” documentary “Broke,” while shows like HBO’s “Real Sports” use the word “concussion” more than President Donald Trump says “believe me.”
Plus every month, we get a steady stream of gripping features on former players, expertly showing the miserable life that awaits many of them in retirement due to some combination of the aforementioned pitfalls. Two that immediately come to mind were on Larry Johnson and Jamal Lewis, two former bell-cow running backs who haven’t hit 40 yet but are admittedly staving off suicidal thoughts.
With all that information available, and the fact that parents of high schoolers are increasingly refusing to let their sons play tackle football — the numbers, across five years, dropped 3.5 percent in 2017, according to the National Association of State High School Federations — it’s clear that society, in general, comprehends the dangers that come with playing the game.
If that’s the case, you’d think most people would appreciate the efforts of those players — who risk their health and their futures on a down-to-down basis — to earn as much money as possible while they can, right?
Unfortunately, fans still care more about their favorite teams than the men who work for them. Nowhere is this more evident every year than in the middle of June, when hundreds of NFL players are required to report to a four-day minicamp before the collectively bargained break that precedes the start of training camp.
The overwhelming majority of players attend these sessions, albeit begrudgingly. Those are the guys who are eager to get those four days over with and get on with their last taste of freedom until the next season begins.
The handful of players who don’t attend get the pleasure of facing criticism from media (like ESPN’s Bill Polian) and even some of their own fans on Twitter for being “selfish.” That’s what happened to the seven stars — Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, Oakland Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack, Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas III, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson and Tennessee Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan — who skipped their teams’ mandatory camps last week for contract reasons.
This collective lack of empathy is short-sighted, ludicrous and somewhat un-American.
Let me explain.
Many fans have tweeted support to these players. If you’re one of them, this column is not directed at you. If you are one of those who harbor some resentment toward those players, I hope you take this column as what it’s intended to be — an appeal to your good nature, not an attack. To ask for empathy, you must give it, and I’ll start by noting that if you’re struggling to make ends meet while toiling away at a job you hate, it’s easy to understand why you might be loath to feel sorry for anyone who makes in a year what you might make in a lifetime.
However, this is also a good time to point out two things. First, everything in adulthood is relative. Everyone’s life is hard, even rich people’s. People with lots of money can be as miserable (or even more miserable) than the average guy. Second, NFL players have bosses, just like you do. In their world, they’re working stiffs, just like you. And by siding against players who are only (and wisely) positioning themselves to get as much money as possible during the prime years of their earning potential, you’re essentially siding with the guys who sign their paychecks — the NFL owners.
NFL players might be rich, but the owners have wealth, the kind that sustains families for generations. NFL owners generally run in the same circles as the guy who founded whatever company you work for, the guy you’re basically busting your hump for while he looks at you the same way you look at players in Madden’s franchise mode.
Uh, oh — this player just hit 28 years old and started regressing two points in every key category. He’s due to make $9 million and I can save $5 million on the salary cap. That’s bad value – better release him!
You know you’ve done that before. And when you consider the fact that NFL owners actually look at players that way, it’s sobering stuff.
I’ve covered the NFL for five years, and since I’ve started reporting on these men — as Winston Zeddemore might say — I have seen stuff that will turn you white. Do you know how common it is for players to sign big money deals, only to be told a few years later to either take a pay cut or get released? It happens to multiple players on every team, every year. You can set your clock to it every February before free agency.
For the players involved, many of whom get attached to teams and cities —especially if they’ve got kids in the school systems there — it stinks. Most accept the shakedown and keep it moving. We’ve all gotten so accustomed to the “Player X has restructured his deal” stories that they barely merit a headline. Most of the time, they end up being tweets that get favorited, retweeted and confirmed by other writers. When the player gets released a year later — as the Kansas City Chiefs’ veteran inside linebacker Derrick Johnson did this offseason, less than a year after taking a pay cut — fans are quick to say it:
D.J. was great for 13 years, but he lost a step. Time to move on.
Folks sure move on fast.
But what about the guy who outperforms his deal? Take Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, for instance. Hill was a fifth-round pick in 2016, and he has become one of the most exciting players in football, a two-time Pro Bowler who has essentially earned the league minimum the past two seasons. Even if Hill wanted to, he couldn’t renegotiate that deal until after this season — his third accrued year — before getting more money.
Meanwhile, San Francisco 49ers guard Joshua Garnett — who was taken in the first round two years ago, the same year Hill was selected — is apparently on the roster bubble, according to a report from the Sacramento Bee, following a middling rookie year and a missed sophomore year due to injury.
Oh yes, you better believe it’s a one-way street for the owners, folks.
Yet, when veterans have the gall to use the system in their favor by selectively holding out to get ownership’s attention and earn more money, some get incensed. ESPN analyst Bill Polian — a Hall of Fame general manager — summed up those thoughts last week, when he said players should live up to the contracts they’ve signed … even though teams regularly cut players before the end of the deals, just when the base salaries start to get lucrative.
When fellow ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi — a former player, not coincidently — checked him on that double standard, Polian said players should blame the NFL Players Association, which collectively bargained these rules with the league.
It’s a convenient excuse, except for the fact many of the players who are currently bound to the current CBA weren’t a part of the union when the deal was struck in 2011. Many were in high school or college then.
It’s bogus to deflect responsibility from the owners, many of whom have so much money, influence and generational privilege that siding with them against the players is like rooting for the bank in “Monopoly” or, in sports parlance, rooting for Drago in “Rocky IV.”
And really, who wants to do that? Pulling for the underdog is a distinctly American ethos, one that is reflected by the success of movies like “Rocky” or even “Creed,” and the NFL players are clearly the Balboas in this situation. Imagine the players as an absolutely yoked-up Sly Stallone lined up against a collective NFL ownership embodied by Dolph Lundgren, whose massive reach and steroids-enhanced strength is equivalent to the advantages enjoyed by a league that possesses an endless pool of money and top-notch counsel with a CBA in its back pocket that prevents early contract restructures when players have most of their value (in the mid-to-early 20s). The symmetry is too good.
So, the next time a star player holds out on your favorite team, all in an effort to make sure he maximizes his earning potential in preparation for a future that may include memory loss and suicidal thoughts, and you feel that anger rising from the pit of your stomach because that player might need a few extra practices to get up to snuff before the season begins in September, ask yourself one question:
Are you sure, absolutely sure, you want to root for Drago?
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