On a Monday night in 2007 the Buffalo Bills played only their second primetime home game in seven years. They took on the Dallas Cowboys, a team for which my family has rooted for generations. It was a chaotic night, and for much of my evening a miserable one. Tony Romo turned the ball over six times, the Cowboys gave up a kick return for a touchdown and two interception returns for touchdowns, and in general I felt a level of sorrow that only things like this can dwarf. But then somehow there were 20 seconds left and we still had a shot. The Cowboys recovered an onside kick, Romo threw two short passes, and Nick Folk nailed a 53-yard field goal (twice, Dick Jauron iced him) to win the game. In a conscious lifetime that’s seen the Cowboys win one playoff game, this was my greatest moment with them. I screamed and jumped and put my hands in the air and generally acted like these guys (meanwhile, in Buffalo). My team had absolutely no business winning that night, but they did.
That seems like a forever ago. Folk was still the savior who would solve the aftermath of the Mike Vanderjagt misadventure, Terrell Owens was far from being cut by a team he part-owned, and nobody yet knew how much Marshawn Lynch, who played for the Bills in that game, liked Skittles. But that game and that night forever remain with me. Not in any tangible way: I don’t remember with whom I or where I was. I remember the basic facts of the game, but the specifics are a bit fuzzier. I don’t remember Wade Phillips running onto the field with that stupid grin, bouncing about like the Pillsbury Doughboy or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’s second cousin. I don’t remember Tony Kornheiser mistakenly calling Dick Jauron’s icing a great call, then arguing that icing should be banned on no greater premise than “it’s nuts.” I don’t remember that there was a flag on the second attempt, or Mike Tirico’s bad pun. No, those are details that only the pixelated auxiliary memory of Youtube can provide.
But I do remember the feeling. I remember the elation, the wondrous, rocketing and rocky journey from despair to hope to joy that took place in minutes. I’d invested my heart and my soul in a game for three hours, and in a team for thirteen years before that, and the joy I felt was unlike any I’ve felt since. The joy that sports has brought me and can bring to any fan is a feeling that is hard to find anywhere else. I’m not here just to talk about the old adage that sports are a place to turn on a bad day, that we can forget our pains with our team when they succeed and wallow with them when they don’t. But I do think that’s true, that sports are a coping mechanism, that putting our hearts and souls into something that’s not us is exactly what we need sometimes. I love football, and I love the Dallas Cowboys, and anyone who tries to say that sports are stupid or that they don’t matter is just wrong. Sports are something to live for when we have nothing else, and they’re something to live alongside when we do. Sports save people.
But they also dehumanize and destroy them.
A month ago, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s two-year-old son was beaten to death in South Dakota. Four days later Peterson suited up to play against the Carolina Panthers. Last year, Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith played the day after his brother died in a motorcycle accident. In 2003, Brett Favre famously lit up the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football the day after his father died. It is standard procedure for NFL players to compete in the wake of a loved one’s death. And that’s not inherently a problem. Perhaps playing the game they love is the best way for many athletes to cope. But fans, media, teammates, and coaches should be careful in assuming that football is every pro’s best therapy. In the continuing aftermath of the Richie Incognito–Jonathan Martin drama in Miami, many concerns have been raised about “tough guy” culture and the standard mindset of NFL players. Some men, like perhaps Jonathan Martin, who have the skills and the ability to play NFL football, may not necessarily have the same macho, purely testosterone-fueled mindset that other NFL players do. Maybe football isn’t Martin’s best therapy. Does that mean the NFL should change? Or does it mean that Jonathan Martin just isn’t right for the NFL? I don’t know. But we should remember that football players have emotions besides anger—some even show them—and we shouldn’t always expect players facing personal loss to play. That may work for some, but certainly not all.
Football is unique in its personal distance; in most other sports, the faces of the players can be seen, the emotions read. They are masked on the football field. Men become more (less?) than people: They become physical specimens, machines charging down the field racking up fantasy points and blowing each other up. They are invincible, stronger and better than you or I could ever be. Anybody who's ever watched Calvin Johnson do anything ever knows that. But in these moments of loss, of personal tragedy, the pads and helmets come off, the fantasy stats don’t matter, and we see football players emotionally naked. And in these moments they become so very human, so very vulnerable, so very real. They go out on the field and they play for the memory of their loved one and we can almost see through the pads, through the helmets and the visors. Television cameras and news crews will not let us escape the fact that this man is hurting, that he feels. We feel their pain, and we root for them because of it. It can’t be denied that these moments are inspirational, that we enjoy watching them. Success and resilience in the face of tragedy is something we’d all like to have, and when we realize that the machines are actually just like us, we think that just maybe we can.
But it shouldn’t take that. It shouldn’t take a sudden tragedy for us to find humanity on the football field. Because right now, we’re blind to the gradual ones. Last week Jaguars wide receiver Justin Blackmon was suspended indefinitely for again violating the league’s substance abuse policy, and will enter rehab. Before the season even began, Ravens linebacker Rolando McClain abruptly announced his retirement after only three seasons in the league, saying “I felt…like I wanted to kill somebody.” Earlier this season, 49ers star linebacker Aldon Smith left the team for rehab after crashing his car into a tree and being convicted of driving under the influence. These are all issues that are not created overnight. These are problems that players develop over time, that are brewed through personal circumstances and tendencies before they bubble to the top. Maybe the players were born with these issues, maybe they gained them over time. But they certainly weren’t created all of a sudden. I feel like many NFL fans, myself included, are ready to overlook warning signs, to write off issues like arrests as just coming with the territory. NFL players get arrested all the time, so there’s no need to worry, right? But then the abruptness of things like retirement and rehab shake us out of those illusions. Our eyes are suddenly opened to just how screwed up some of these players’ lives are, to the fact that they really do have deeper issues, that they need help. And then we assign them to rehab, let them complete it, tell ourselves the problem’s solved, and turn a blind eye again.
I don’t know what you and I can do about Smith, or Blackmon or Incognito or the others. There’s little room for me to personally help solve their issues. And I don’t know if there’s anything the NFL itself can do. But it does concern me the way I, and others, view NFL players’ problems, the way I don’t see them coming and then expect them to go away quickly. It concerns me that when I saw Blackmon’s first suspension my immediate thought was that he could be a late-round steal in my keeper league. It also concerns me that Smith has already returned to the 49ers and played last weekend. Is five weeks really long enough to truly deal with potential alcoholism? Is this decision about Smith’s sack rate or his well-being? Are we as fans, the 49ers as an organization, and Jim Harbaugh as a coach concerned about Aldon Smith the man, or Aldon Smith the football player?
As Andrew Sharp of Grantland mused before the season, something just feels off about NFL football right now. It undeniably brings joy to people around the country. I’ll never forget Nick Folk’s game-winner. But the joy pro football brings to millions is often at the expense of the few. I have no idea whether this trade-off is necessary for the NFL’s survival, or if it’s a trade-off we should be making at all. Those are questions that have yet to be answered, by me or anybody. But in the meantime, it might be best if we stopped thinking of football players as just the jerseys on the field, but rather as the men under them.
Liam Leddy is the blogger behind Vignettes and Hyperlinks. He is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.