GARRISON: With The Fame and Fortune Comes Responsibility - Even In The NFL
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Those of us with long-standing affinity for the National Football League have witnessed a myriad of changes in the sport at the professional level over the decades; I was bitten by the bug in 6th grade when the allure of the gridiron of the old NFL began to ascend. Play-by-play featuring the likes of Lindsey Nelson, Red Grange and Ray Scott and heroes of the sport including Gale Sayers, Jim Brown, Y.A. Tittle, Bart Starr, Paul Horning, Sam Huff, Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Willie Gallimore—you get the point, the list is almost endless—made for a television experience that hooked me at age 12, and yes, to this day I’m still a huge fan.
Over the decades (I think that would be over 5 of them by this point) rules have changed, stars have risen and fallen, and the game has added ever-more glitz and hype; we have enclosed stadiums now where, no matter the temperature or weather conditions outside, both fans and players enjoy 72 degrees all day long.
Then there has been the huge tidal change in racial makeup of the player base in the NFL. Over these decades we have witnessed the advent of that base go from a pretty small minority to what is now a clear and growing majority status of blacks over whites throughout teams and at every position on offense and defense. Of course there have been grumps and blind men who have decried it all, complaining about the ethnic differences and even the complexion (no pun intended) of the media crowd as well. So what? Thought you’d never ask.
Today’s professional football team is faster, quicker, more agile, stronger, and longer lasting at all positions than ever before. Even the aforementioned blind men cannot deny that football today is more athletic, more exciting, faster paced and of a higher professional quality than any American sport has ever seen—and I do mean ever.
It took a while, and there were bastions of whiteness that seemed immune from the changes; while linemen, defensive backs, and special teams became ever-more typified by black players, the so-called “skilled positions”—quarterbacks, receivers, even linebackers as well—stayed pretty lily white. Then there were the ranks of the coaching staffs, particularly at the head coaching levels. All different today. The case can be made that with regard to coaching positions things have moved more slowly, but with each passing year we see those folks more and more representative of the player base. And that is how is should be. And be clear on this one, my friends and fellow fans, this is one guy who not only has no problem with all the above, but I have reveled in the quality of play and the indescribable benefits the game has seen over time.
Ok, there it is. But let me drop another shoe for your consideration, no matter your ethnic persuasion or predisposition. With African American players accounting for a huge portion of the active salaries throughout the NFL—again only right, given their contributions and consistent skills—and with their visibility on and off the field in all walks of public discourse comes one feature that has been lacking and now threatens the sport. It is that sense of responsibility that comes from such powerful, even overwhelming influence at every level.
Honest to goodness, the plunge in NFL viewership and attendance at games has nothing whatever to do with the quality of play or the high level of professionalism of the players and coaches. But nobody thought, before Colin Kaepernick took that fateful knee on the San Francisco sideline, about the well-being of the league and its now majority constituent player base of doing something like that. Had anybody thought it through, that it might repel millions of fans who most assuredly DO NOT go to the games or watch faithfully on TV to view what they fairly can perceive as a series of shameful insults to the republic, its flag and anthem as well as the men and women who defend it, surely cooler and smarter heads would have prevailed.
That is not to say that the opinions and causes that those players may hold are irrelevant, unimportant or less than noteworthy; to the contrary, that’s what that flag and that anthem are all about. But the fact that they’re protected doesn’t mean there are no inappropriate ways to bring them up or demonstrate them. Men who are as visible as NFL players have more than just great paying jobs and lots of fame—they have access to media at all levels that are only too eager to offer them a podium, live and taped television and radio availability as well as all the interest groups who desire high profile spokesmen.
That brings us to more than just the improper venue. There are misguided liberals—oops, that was duplicative, sorry—who see the truly extraordinary opportunities, compensation and lifelong benefits that come to professional football players as some kind of white man’s exploitation of otherwise downtrodden blacks. Well that’s a lot of crap. The players who succeed in the NFL are there because they have voluntarily committed themselves to the highly disciplined and very competitive world of professional athletics. They are not a lot of hapless fools or ignorant incompetents. In point of fact, their financial successes far exceed almost every other line of work. And they take appropriate advantage of it.
The vast majority of players do not commit acts of domestic abuse, but go home after work and raise fine families. In further point of fact, domestic issues such as those so hyped among the media vultures are far less common than in the rest of the population. They commit fewer suicides, fewer felonies and use illicit drugs less than the rest of the population as well. What makes no sense, however, is for these successful folk not to recognize that with all that success comes the necessary responsibility to refrain from damaging their own brand and the future of that enterprise that has provided them with such opportunity and success.
They deserve their rewards; they have earned them through selfless sacrifice and decades of grueling hard work. It has paid off. They just must recognize, as the plunging viewership and game attendance have shown, that with that position and power comes the responsibility to refrain from the kind of wrong-headed behavior of Kaepernick and those who have followed him that has caused it. We are a loyal audience, and we will be back. So long as this new leadership can avoid driving us away.