Ryan Kalil Guarantees It: The Decline of the Jock's Promise

Guarantees, from Muhammad Ali to Michael Jordan, are central to sports lore. They're also everywhere.
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A large family sits, despondent, in a hospital waiting room in Charlotte, North Carolina. The smell is distinct, familiar. They’ve been here before. They have been here, in fact, every summer for the past seventeen years—someone in the family is inevitably diagnosed with a tumor—the odds are astounding, but history is history—and they’ve lost them all, though Aunt Maggie nearly pulled through in February of 2004. Now, following nearly a decade of despondence, hope has finally resurfaced in the form of Dr. Newton, a promising young surgeon. He nearly saved Gramps last year, but nobody expected the old-timer to pull through. Gramps was low percentage—a test run. But this year, it’s Uncle Ned. Optimism is building, but the family members keep their emotions in check. They know the odds aren’t promising. They hope, but don’t expect. They’d be happy just to see Dr. Newton improve after Gramps.

“Let me tell you why we’re going to save Uncle Ned,” a voice booms. The family looks up in unison, confused, to see a gigantic nurse in blue scrubs. His nametag reads: R. Kalil, R.N. He removes one side of his germ mask and it hangs awkwardly from one ear. He looks silly, frankly. “Because we have to,” he preaches. “For eighteen years, you’ve wanted, hoped and tried, but no more. A moment is upon us, where dreams become beliefs and yearning becomes conviction.”

The silence is heavy. One of the children speaks, timidly: “How do you know?”

He raises a clenched fist in the fluorescent lighting. “Because I’ve seen it!”

Then the big blue mammal jogs away, clapping and shouting, back to the operating room.

***

It’s ridiculous, yes. But is the above story any more ridiculous than the full-page Super Bowl guarantee that Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil ran during the offseason in Charlotte Observer?

Okay, honestly: yes. It’s way, way more ridiculous. But the story above was fictional, Kalil’s ad was not, and it marked the latest incident in a long-running trend that has, recently and strangely, gone lavishly viral among professional athletes. The guarantee, once a novel act representative of the lavish confidence and swagger of superstars, has been abused and exhausted to the point of near-meaninglessness in recent years. Promises have never been easier to come by, or worth less. And yet, despite all that, they’re not quite worthless.

It’s important to note that a guarantee, in the context of sports, is different from the typical infomercial version. That should be obvious, of course: a championship cannot be purchased for sixteen easy payments of $39.99 and there is no monetary reimbursement in the case of failure; Ryan Kalil ≠ Billy Mays. Mostly, though, sports guarantees are more modest, and promise something less miraculous than the instantaneous disappearance of grass stains from khakis. A sports guarantee can be defined as an athlete’s public assurance or prediction of some level of success in an upcoming moment, match, or season. “Guarantee” might not be the word for it, as these promises are only as binding as their authors are capable of making them so, but they’ve endured and proliferated all the same.

Let’s say that this began in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. Allegedly, some fat guy in pinstripes pointed at a fence in center field and then hit a ball over it a few moments later. The moment was frozen in time, iconic, immortal, quite probably apocryphal. But if Babe Ruth didn’t invent the sports guarantee, he sure made the idea famous.

The Babe’s called shot would become the first chapter of a storied history of bold predictions Muhammad Ali would tell reporters he’d dreamt that he’d knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round (’65); an inebriated Joe Namath would blurt out “We’re going to win on Sunday—I guarantee it” to a heckling Baltimore Colts fan before Super Bowl III (’69); Mark Messier would guarantee a Game 6 victory in the ’94 Eastern Conference Finals; Michael Jordan would issue his legacy-cementing “We will win Game 7” in the ’98 Eastern Conference Finals. All would come true in storybook fashion. Liston hit the canvas in under two minutes. Namath was named Super Bowl MVP as the Jets did the unthinkable in KO’ing the Goliath Colts. The Rangers won thanks in large part to Messier’s hat trick and Jordan’s Bulls took Game 7 en route to his sixth and final ring. These bold proclamations and subsequent successful results created defined and popularized the sports guarantee. This may or may not be a good thing.

***

The aforementioned moments haven’t been permanently carved into our sports memories simply because the prediction coincided with the result; if so, we’d just be celebrating lab experiments. All the famous guarantees have instead shared certain prerequisites. Their respective contests were always do-or-die situations, the stage was huge and well-watched, the lights bright, and most importantly, the legends behind the great guarantees had already established reputations as supremely confident and accomplished superstars. Ruth had hit over 600 homers by the start of the 1932 World Series. Ali was defending his heavyweight title. Jordan already had a ring for every finger on his shooting hand. And Namath was...well, Namath was drunk at the time, but he was a damn good AFL quarterback on an underrated team. The point is that the guarantee was once a high-stakes gamble, the wager of a legacy, and as such reserved only for superstars who’d earned a seat at the final table before being allowed to toss their blue-chip reputations into the pot. Anyone can say “my hand is better than yours and I know it,” after all. You have to be good to get anyone to listen.

The wager of a reputation still exists; just ask LeBron James. Because he decided to arrogantly splash the pot with “The Decision” and his preseason pep rally speech (“not one, not two… not seven”) and then back it up with an abysmal string of fourth-quarter performances in the Finals of that same year, he’ll never stand taller than Jordan on the podium of basketball mythology. The Heat could, and may well, win the next five-plus championships, but James will likely never be remembered as infallible in the way that Jordan is. James delivered manfully on that promise in the 2011 NBA Finals, but he’s manifestly not (or at least not yet) a myth in the way Jordan is.

Miami’s preseason pep rally was asinine and James’ hilariously overstated guarantee of eight-plus championships can’t be under-ridiculed. But while the greatest player of his generation will have some work to do if it’s ever to look less ridiculous, James is at least the type of player who can make such a guarantee. Ringless though he was at the time, James’ ludicrous guarantee—if only by dint of his world-historic talent—made the most sense of any of the inane proclamations that have filled out the field of contemporary guarantees.

In the wake of Jordan’s sixth and final ring, we’ve washed ashore on an island of misfit Nostradami: an overpopulated place where a mouth-breathing football coach from New York hands out guarantees with a carelessness that would shame Men’s Warehouse; where running back/tackling sled Kevin Smith was bold enough to guarantee a playoff berth the year after the Lions’ 0-16 season, only to follow through with a 2-14 miscarriage; where Chad Johnson Ochocinco Johnson once saw fit to guarantee a regular season victory by his 0-7 Bengals over the 2-5 expansion Texans.

And now we’ve got Ryan Kalil writing and paying for that full-page prophesy, complete with a tone that suggest the original copy was given to him on stone tablets atop Mount Sinai, about his Carolina Panthers. Ryan Kalil, who plays center for a franchise with an empty trophy case and a team that’s coming off a 6-10 season. Kalil is a good lineman, but he is not the Panthers’ best passer, Cam Newton; neither is he the Panthers’ best rusher, Cam Newton. He is the man whose job is to, when Cam Newton tells him to, hand the ball to Cam Newton and then do his utmost to protect Cam Newton from opponents who would harm him. He does this because Cam Newton is the player on the team capable of turning dreams into beliefs and yearning into conviction and leading the Panthers to a one-hundred percent sterling silver Lombardi Trophy. This is not to say Kalil is not an excellent center (he is) or that centers aren’t important (they are) or that Cam Newton is a one-man football team (he isn’t, and there’s no such thing). But there’s a reason why offensive linemen aren’t usually the ones issuing proclamations of this sort.

An individual guaranteeing a victory in a team sport is absurd by nature, to a certain extent. This is doubly true in a sport in which season-ending and season-changing injuries are so prevalent. If anyone should be guaranteeing a Lombardi Trophy or making promises to that desperate family about the prognosis on Uncle Ned’s tumor, it should be the man whose performance is the most critical component to achieving that goal. It should be the quarterback, the surgeon, the superstar. Anything else feels rhetorical. Or, more to the point, silly. But it probably shouldn’t be anyone making it; no one player should have all that power, or ever could.

***

Even successful guarantees have never worked the way we remember them. In the Game 7 he would win, Jordan shot just 9 of 25 from the field and 10 of 15 from the foul line. Mark Messier’s third goal was against an empty net. Joe Namath only threw for 206 yards and no touchdowns and Sonny Liston might have thrown the fight against Ali. They figure out, years on, that Babe Ruth might have been pointing at the Cubs’ dugout, nowhere near center field. The myth fills in where the facts fail.

As these fables are whispered through history, certain pieces get left out or smoothed out or altered: a decades-long game of telephone in which we turn the stories into something more like what we want to hear. Which might be why the gut reaction of many fans is to get defensive, possessive and claim that the recent rash of guarantees is ruining the originals in the same way the first Rocky seems to have gotten progressively worse with each sequel.

In Ruth’s day, typewriters and flash-bulb photography were the links between the star athlete and the general public. Contemporary technology has removed the media’s mediating role, and the new environment favors the loudest and most insistent voices. Chad Johnson, who has exactly one 1,000-yard receiving season since 2007 and is quite probably out of football after allegedly assaulting his wife, is this sort of voice; he is also exactly the sort of person who would make guarantees, and is a creature indigenous to a swampy, flat and fevered media environment that’s exceptionally conducive to the guarantee.

But if all these new guarantees cheapen the ones we’ve turned into legends, it’s worth remembering that the treasured guarantees didn’t shine quite so bright before we spent all that time buffing them. Fans, in this case, don’t want to own up to their handiwork: we’ve spent so many years deleting the little factual blemishes from these stories because it’s prettier without them. We don’t want to hear about a Jets defense that didn’t allow a touchdown or about Matt Snell, the Jets’ fullback who rushed 30 times for 121 yards and a touchdown and also made four receptions for 40 of Namath’s 206 yards. We like the Namath version better, because it is better. It’s the Hollywood ending—the best and most dramatically satisfying possible version of the story.

That’s the power of the guarantee—it can make an epic story out of a less than epic performance. The medium for Kalil’s guarantee is ironic, given the way that the newspaper industry and old-fashioned sports guarantees have both been compromised and diminished in significance by the leveling noise of technology. Any athlete, even an offensive lineman, can make a headline in a heartbeat, or with one strident tweet, and that athlete can write the headline on his or her own, without the help of any newspaper editors. With instant, completely free media like Twitter and Facebook having turned every athlete’s cell phone into a national megaphone, it’s surprising that Kalil opted to revert to the relic of print.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe, like his fellow promisers and pledgers, Kalil was reaching for the power of those old mythic guarantees by turning to the medium that used to announce them. The bright aura of the sports pledge has been diminished for fans, who have heard them too often and generally just hear so much. But, at the very least, Ryan Kalil clearly still believes in the stubborn power of the old-fashioned guarantee, for an obvious reason with some deep roots: because he’s seen it.


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