The Battle Within: Things Bigger than Football
Since the Steelers play on Monday night football this week, the opponent preview will come out tomorrow. And perhaps this is an appropriate week to have it knocked out of its regular day. Because yes, there really are things more important than the next game, even for NFL players.
After it was revealed that Martavis Bryant was not with the team during the first three weeks of his suspension, but was in Houston working with an addiction counselor, Mike Tomlin said:
“He has issues that he’s dealing with that are bigger than football. We’re committed to assisting the man in that.”
It’s easy to forget the man behind the football player, especially in these degenerate days of fantasy football. And I mean that sincerely. I’ve played fantasy for a couple of years now, and I noticed a change in how I view players. In fantasy, you can have no loyalty whatsoever to a player. Your sole focus is on how he can benefit your team. And of course when you are hopping from player to player, benching or cutting guys as necessary, the luxury of trying to get to know something about the person behind the name is completely eliminated. He becomes a mere cartoon character in your personal video game.
You can’t close Pandora’s box once it’s opened, and with the explosion of single week leagues the situation has become more and more dehumanizing.
But I didn’t set out to write a post denigrating fantasy football. Instead, I’m hoping to persuade us all to step back for a moment and think about the men we ask to perform for us, week after week. They have hidden struggles and injuries and heartbreak, but they trot out onto the field anyway. As Mewelde Moore once told me, “We are modern gladiators.”
One of the big road blocks to seeing the players as ordinary men, albeit ones who do something extraordinary, is the issue of money. Even Tunch Ilkin shook his head in a Steelers Live broadcast earlier this week as he enumerated the money the Steelers currently have tied up in kickers. The one which pulled him up short was the money the Steelers just agreed to pay new kicker Chris Boswell—a pro-rated amount of the rookie minimum of $425,000.
Tunch, now obviously off book, said “425,000 dollars! In my day the rookie minimum was $25,000, and I know that for sure, because that’s what I got!” After Bob Labriola muttered something about inflation, Tunch noted that the price of a car had not increased to that extent.
The average price of a car in 1980, Ilkin’s first year in the league, was $7,210. The most recent figure I found for the average price of a new car these days is $31,252. So Chris Boswell could buy 13 and a half new cars with his salary (or could if he was signed for the whole year.) Tunch could have only bought three and a half cars. The 2015 cars are probably a lot fancier too, although not nearly as durable. But that’s another post…
To return to the original point, the money is immaterial. Ivan Cole put it very well in his third Training Camp For Fans article:
A man is selling a rug at a bazaar.
“Who will give me $100 for this fine rug?” he asks.
“Why are you just charging $100 dollars?” a friend inquires, “The rug is priceless!”
The dealer replies “Is there any number higher than 100?”
This little parable speaks to some of the pitfalls associated with motivation. How often have fans made the bottom line statement of “They’re paying them enough money”? Perhaps understandable in the general sense given that in this society money is God in the considerations of many.
But there comes a point of diminishing returns. To those who can’t conceptualize beyond a hundred, what meaning or value can there be for a thousand? It is here that the idea of money and more money serving as a consistently reliable motivator begins to fail.
it’s easy to be incredulous at a Josh Gordon, at a Justin Blackmon, at a Tanard Jackson, at any of the men who have possibly thrown away a career and “left a lot of money on the table” because of personal demons they couldn’t conquer. And yes, I refuse to engage in the argument that if marijuana was legalized it would no longer be an issue. If there is a substance your employer has forbidden you to use, whether it is marijuana, celery salt, or Dapper Dan’s pomade, and, knowing you can lose your job if you don’t stop, you use it anyhow, you are an addict.
If you want some depressing reading, check out this Wikipedia article, List of Suspensions in the National Football League. It lists suspensions of any length, for any reason, and includes coaches. It is very long, as it begins in 1925 with the lifetime suspension of Art Folz for his role in the Chicago Cardinals/Milwaukee Badgers scandal and ends, so far, with the October 2nd four-game suspension of (now former) Bears wide receiver A.J. Cruz.
The substance abuse violation list only begins in 1983, and currently has 368 incidents on it. (There are some repeat appearances, so the number of players is somewhat smaller.) Most of the suspensions are four games or less, but there is a substantial number of indefinite suspensions on the list, which generally spelled the end to a meaningful career.
Many of the names are obscure, but some of them are those of the most promising young men to play the game in recent years. Besides the names mentioned above, a few which catch my attention are these:
Will Hill—S, currently with the Baltimore Ravens (and possibly the best player on their defense.) Here are the various things Hill has been through, according to his Wiki article:
On October 8, 2012, the NFL suspended Hill for using the prescription drug Adderall. He was able to return to the Giants active roster on November 5. Hill was suspended a second time for the first four games of the 2013 season for violating the NFL substance abuse policy; his suspension ended on September 30.
On December 21, 2013, Hill was arrested in New Jersey on a warrant for outstanding child support payments. Despite the arrest, Hill still played that Sunday against the Detroit Lions. During the game he intercepted a pass thrown by Matthew Stafford in the fourth quarter and scored on a 38-yard touchdown to tie the game and force overtime. In overtime, the Giants would go on to win the game 23-20.
In March 2014, New Jersey police issued a warrant for Hill’s arrest for failure to pay child support.
On May 30, 2014, Hill was suspended for the first six games of the 2014 season for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy.
Hill has been trying to make changes in his personal life. “I sit in the house with my family. I used to be a nightclub guy, especially coming out of college. I’ve just been watching a lot of movies. I’m a homebody. I took a long look in the mirror and decided to change a lot of things,” Hill said in December 2014.
Aqib Talib—CB, currently with the Denver Broncos.
Talib was suspended for four games during the 2012 season for, as he said, “making a mistake” by taking an Adderall pill without a prescription. But Talib’s life has not been without other issues, (also from his Wiki page):
Talib has had several conduct related issues since his NFL career started. At the NFL rookie symposium in July 2008, Talib was involved in a fistfight with fellow Buccaneers rookie Cory Boyd. On August 20, 2009, Talib allegedly battered a taxi driver, and he was arrested by Florida Highway Patrol and booked into the Pinellas County jail, charged with resisting arrest without violence and simple battery.
In March 2011, police in Garland, Texas issued a felony warrant for Talib for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after accusing him of firing a gun at his sister’s boyfriend. He was later released on $25,000 bond. Talib was indicted on the charge in May 2011. On June 18, 2012, the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence and character concerns with the accuser.
Aldon Smith—DE, currently with the Oakland Raiders.
From his Wiki page:
On January 28, 2012, Aldon Smith was arrested for driving under the influence in Miami Beach, Florida.
On June 30, 2012, Smith was believed to have suffered stab wounds when attempting to break up a fight at a party at his residence. Two other people were shot in the incident. On October 9, 2013, Smith was charged with “three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon” relating to the stabbing incident. The charges were later reduced to misdemeanors.
On September 20, 2013, Smith was involved in a single vehicle accident in San Jose, California. He was subsequently arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and possession of marijuana. After the loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the third week of the football season, he voluntarily entered a rehabilitation facility, to be put onto the non-football injury list with an indefinite leave of absence.
On April 13, 2014, Smith was detained and arrested following an incident at the Los Angeles International Airport in which Smith became belligerent and uncooperative with a TSA agent, who alleged Smith claimed he was carrying a bomb. After interviews revealed that Smith did not clearly state he was carrying a bomb, the Los Angeles City Attorney decided to drop the charges. Smith was suspended for 9 games for the 2014 season.
On August 6, 2015, he was arrested in Santa Clara, California, for an alleged hit and run after driving under the influence, and vandalism charges. He was released by the 49ers the following day August 7, 2015, as a result.
The Oakland Raiders signed him to a contract shortly thereafter, and he is playing while the court process for the latest DUI plays out. But it’s very hard to imagine he isn’t facing a one-year suspension unless he is completely exonerated of the charges from the August 6th incident.
Dion Jordan—DE, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins first-round pick in 2013 (taken third overall,) Jordan is currently serving a one-year suspension for his third episode of failing the league’s testing.
Jerome Simpson—WR, currently with the 49ers.
Simpson was the Bengals’ 2nd round pick in the 2008 draft, and played well for them. He is now serving a six-game suspension for the following incident:
In September 2011, police searched Simpson’s Crestview Hills, Kentucky townhome after intercepting a package to be delivered to his home containing 2.5 pounds of marijuana. When police arrived at Simpson’s home, Simpson’s girlfriend asked if they had a search warrant. They did not have one. After the search warrant was issued, the police found 6 more pounds of marijuana, scales, and empty packages similar to the one they had been intercepted. Simpson’s teammate Anthony Collins was at the residence and was also questioned by the police. No arrests were made.
On January 19, 2012, Simpson was indicted in Covington, Kentucky for “Trafficking in more than eight ounces and less than five pounds of marijuana”, a Class D felony, which carries a 1 to 5-year prison sentence if convicted. The NFL stated it would wait until the police investigation was complete to decide if it would discipline Simpson. On April 5, 2012, Simpson was sentenced to 15 days in jail, 200 hours of community service, and 3 years probation.
And let’s not forget Chris Henry, the exceedingly talented but seriously troubled Bengals receiver who died in the aftermath of an altercation with his fiancee. As per his Wiki page:
On December 15, 2005, Henry was pulled over in northern Kentucky for speeding. During a search, marijuana was found in his shoes. He was also driving without a valid driver’s license or valid insurance. He pleaded guilty and avoided a jail sentence.
One month later, on January 30, 2006 he was arrested in Orlando, Florida for multiple gun charges including concealment and aggravated assault with a firearm. He was reported to have been wearing his #15 Bengals jersey at the time of his arrest. He pleaded guilty to this charge and avoided jail time.
On April 29, 2006 Henry allowed three underage females (ages 18, 16 and 15) to consume alcohol at a hotel in Covington, Kentucky. One of the three, an 18-year-old woman, accused Henry of sexually assaulting her; she later retracted her story and was charged with filing a false police report. On January 25, 2007, Henry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of a city ordinance commonly referred to as a “keg law.” He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, with all but two of those days being suspended.
Henry was pulled over on Interstate 275 in Ohio on June 3, 2006 at 1:18 a.m. by Ohio Highway Patrol trooper Michael Shimko for suspected drunk driving. He voluntarily submitted to a breathalyzer test at 2:06 A.M. at the Milford Police Department and registered a .092 blood-alcohol level, .012 above the level permitted in the state of Ohio.
On October 6, 2006 Henry was suspended by the NFL for two games for violating the league’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies. NFL policies forbade Henry from taking part in practices; however, he was allowed to attend any team meetings. Henry missed the Bengals’ October 15, 2006 game at Tampa Bay and their October 22, 2006 home game versus Carolina.
In April 2007, Henry was suspended for the first eight games of the 2007 NFL season for violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. His suspension on the 10th came with a stern warning that future misconduct may result in the end of his career with the NFL. Henry was given permission by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to begin practicing fully.
On March 31, 2008, Henry punched a man named Gregory Meyer, 18, and threw a beer bottle through the window of his car. Henry claimed it was a case of mistaken identity and that he thought it was somebody else that owed him money. Henry was waived by the Bengals a day after this arrest and was then served a house arrest sentence.
Henry’s mother donated his body for medical research, and he was famously discovered to have CTE. It is reasonable to think this may have been a factor in his off-field problems. The very disquieting aspect of this was, he never had a concussion, as far as anyone knows.
I could go on for hours, but you get the idea. It’s so easy to forget that these men have the same struggles as any of the rest of us, and possibly a lot more. We ignore the reality that football is a violent game played by angry men. Personality changes due to CTE are possibly an issue for some. The upbringing of many NFL players leaves a lot to be desired. They may have been forced out of their home, abandoned by their father, abused, or a host of other things we wouldn’t wish on any child.
Many people in other walks of life also have these sorts of backgrounds, and a lot of them overcome it. Most of them don’t, however, have to deal with the sort of unsavory (or just immature and ultimately harmful) “friends” who gather around a young man who is getting an NFL-type payday. Nor do they have to get their lives in order under constant scrutiny, and with the temptations which come with too much money and public adulation.
Antonio Brown, who knows a lot about such things, sent a message to Bryant, as reported on ESPN:
“You have to be professional on and off the field,” Bryant said. “You have to take care of your business. You’ve got to make right decisions. I tell Martavis all the time, ‘it’s all about who you have around you.’ You want to have people around you who bring you up and put you in the right position.”
Brown didn’t say it was easy. And, depending on how Bryant is wired, it either won’t be easy or perhaps will be scarcely possible to get beyond this. But I’m very happy the team is united behind him to give him the most help and the best chance possible.
Many of the struggles players contend with are far less public than Bryant’s have been. Only people like Ivan who have actually played football at a high level will understand what these guys go through, day after day, and how strong the desire must be to medicate the physical and psychological pain.
I chose the picture of Bryant very deliberately. Most of the ones I found were what you would expect—Bryant making an athletic catch, running in for a touchdown, talking animatedly after a big game. But what will define his career, or lack thereof, is how he handles the “bigger than football” issues he is facing and the vulnerability he lives with.
Whatever happens, in his case or the many others throughout the league, I hope we as fans can have compassion on these young men. They are, after all, young ones, many of them still maturing after being in the cocoon of the college experience. To whom much is given, from him much will be required. But until we can understand the full breadth of the man, apart from his talent and promise, it will be difficult to fathom the possible depths of his failings.