Head Games

The reaction to the latest member of the NFL's most recent mass exodus is just as problematic as the things that pushed him to leave in the first place.
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Somewhere between Roger Goodell’s neverending George W. Bush impression, the second Ray Rice video, Adrian Peterson beating his child and the abject terribleness of the Bears (and America’s spirit animal, Jay Cutler,) I found myself completely separate not just from the NFL but largely from the entire vortex it creates. For the most part, as long as you avoid sports television, radio, bookmark the ESPN landing pages of other leagues and no longer read most monthly sports magazines or newspapers Thursday-Tuesday (or any day which ends in "y" during a week with a Thursday night game,) it’s not that hard to miss.

However, even after making a concerted effort to avoid all things smashy-throwy, bits and pieces of that universe form pocket dimensions that affect the time and space of the one I constructed, like so much Matthew McConaughey. Retweets, Facebook shares and the sheer gravitational force of the NFL permeates through everything in our lives. Unless you mute the world around you -- as opposed to just intentionally tuning most of it out -- you are all but forced to engage with the black hole.

For fans of sports, accepting the good and bad of this (in the big picture sense) is part of the deal in the same way that winning and losing are. However, our issues or whatever problems we have within the sports world, are exceedingly private. No one knows, nor ultimately cares that I stopped watching football -- and yes, that was “burying” the lede -- but what happens when someone involved in it decides they no longer want to be part of that world?

It’s treated as a violation of the laws of nature.

There are dozens of examples -- just from the 2014 49ers alone -- of people leaving the game before we’ve decided it’s their time (as opposed to the equally egregious decision to staying on after we’ve decided it’s their time.) And the steaming pile of hottakes  just this morning to San Francisco linebacker Chris Borland’s decision to retire at the age of 24 over fears of permanent brain damage illuminate just how much of a personal affront people take athletes, and especially football players, from exercising free will:

Now, as the venerable Bobby Big Wheel makes clear, this is mostly just Florio being Florio. But it still speaks to the indefatigable idea that people in the public eye, as well as their decisions, belong to us. What’s worse is that in Florio being Florio, he has created a following by tapping into and exploiting the entire line of thinking that views sports as a kind of community property and the people who play it as extras in the story of our lives as sports fans. It sells, and it’s why athletes are given little to no dimension in the larger narrative of sports. Even the largest stars are saddled with only marginally more emotional depth and nuance than a female character in a late-era Sorkin script. It's much easier to see people as fodder when you treat them that way.

Collectively, there is a nearly categorical refusal to engage even with the simple idea that athletes are not just playing parts in the tales we tell other people. Yankees fans, including prominent ones that show up frequently on their friends’ podcast, complained about Mark Texieria taking off to be present for the birth of his child because, among other things, “it was his third kid”. As though bringing life into the world -- the very essence of our existence -- gets kind of boring and pointless after the first run through.

With that as a prevailing mindset, the idea that most fans would begin treating athletes like the fully-dimensional individuals they are seems as distant as colonizing Jupiter. Most people sadly validate themselves through the things they like, which not only fosters an unhealthy relationship with people but the things themselves. Instead of reacting like any person would to someone with whom they are marginally familiar changing jobs, feelings are projected onto both the person and the decision. In the minds of too many, the decision maker somehow owes it to the arc of the universe to cash in what is perceived as a lottery ticket, and if they choose not to, they’ve made a personal affront to the very core of the each individual viewer and fan.

This is something that goes far beyond entitlement -- which in public life often feels like an intellectual endurance test of how lacking in self-awareness someone can be while still functioning as a contributing member of society -- into a kind of attachment disorder. This attachment becomes an even more distorted view of reality once money is involved. Even Adam Schefter, doing his best Darren Rovell impression, will pile on.

The problems with these two short sentences are myriad: the notion that money is the only factor in this kind of decision, that said money is more important than the long term well-being of the individual and that, most insidiously, the money is something that will last long past the end of his playing career despite the fact Schefter is undoubtedly aware that an inordinate amount of athletes (and NFL players in particular) go bankrupt almost immediately after playing are just the tip of that iceberg of a tweet. Even the mention of "6 months of work," is a prime example of not getting facts let in the way of a good story.

Whether or not someone is risking permanent brain damage by playing is not even part of that discussion to someone like Schefter. It's often said, mostly by idiots, that playing in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE is a "privilege" and not a "right". And, sure, if you want to say “guy who beats his children and/or his wife” has lost the "privilege" to play, few would stop you. But for anyone with half a brain left, or better yet an ounce of human compassion, to extrapolate the idea to mean that someone like Borland -- and given his size and speed, he didn’t seem particularly "privileged" athletically, just dangerously tenacious to the point that he clearly feared for his own safety -- or anyone else who is perceived by outsiders to be holding that lottery ticket is somehow morally obligated to cash it in has lost any grasp of reality. 

Then there’s Borland, of course, who spent much of last year weighing the idea and thankfully, appears content with his remarkably thoughtful but ultimately, for him, “simple” -- as he told ESPN’s Fainaru brothers -- decision. It may be a decision that he did not have to make, nor one that may end up being financially prudent -- though he also seems to have a concrete plan going forward to maximize his future earnings -- but this choice was something much more important than any of that.

It was his.

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