Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Playing in the NFL is Not a Privilege

I firmly believe that Andy Gresh was put on this earth to torment me for my sins. Gresh's "everyday joe" persona has long since crossed the border into "total and willful ignoramus", and it's now seeking political asylum there.

Tonight's bit of genius involved frothing at the mouth over the Bengals' decision to bring back wide receiver and cell block H favorite Chris Henry. On one hand, he's right - the Bengals' front office and brain trust take a tremendous credibility hit by bringing back the guy who singlehandedly exemplifies the Bengals' lawless tradition of recent years, and whom they'd publicly said they weren't interested in.

That being said, that's not what got Gresh going. No, what had him geysering all over the mike was the notion that Henry had abused the privilege of playing professional football in the NFL.

The privilege.

And about the ninth time I heard those words, I was ready to stop the car and tear down a medium-sized pine tree with my teeth and fingernails because of the sheer stupidity of that statement, and what it implies.

It is not a "privilege" to play in the NFL. If you are playing professional football, it is because one of the 32 pocket dictators called a "head coach" has decided that you can help him win games and sell tickets. That is it. It is not a privilege. It is a job. It is a business transaction between the player, who offers his services and health (long term and short term) in exchange for fame, fortune, and the perks of being a professional athlete in our society. The players inevitably lose t his transaction, because they are all ultimately replaceable, and because the currency they bring to the table is their own physical and mental well-being, at the end of the ride they are inevitably diminished in some way. It is not a privilege, it is a well-paying, hazardous, dangerous profession and considering the revenues that the players bring in by their athleticism and willingness to sacrifice themselves, they are entitled to as much of that pie as they can grab as their due. Nobody pays 50 yard line seat prices to watch Tom Benson, after all.

Do players get privileged treatment during their playing days? Of course. But that's confusing correlation with causation. They get privileged treatment, whether from the police or the media or the dewy-eyed young women at post-game watering holes because of their profession, not as part of it. The privilege falls away once you stop playing for all but the most transcendent few, and it becomes clear that particular sort of treatment is not about the player.

Instead, it's about the team, and not in the rah-rah way. As long as the player is viewed making a positive contribution - or at least more of a contribution than his replacement might - he's coddled regardless of pretty much anything he might do. Treated with kid gloves. Given second or third or ninth chances. Witness Steve Smith, who's injured two teammates in fistfights. Witness pharmaceutical fiend Bill Romanowski. Witness Leonard Little, who killed someone in a drunk driving incident and then was caught blotto behind the wheel again. Witness Terrell Owens and Nick Kaczur and Adam Jones and Odell Thurman and Todd Sauerbrun and more. The lesson is clear: if you can play, we want you, and everything else is details. That's not privilege. That's cold-eyed evaluation of an asset, and Chris Henry understands this better than Andy Gresh does. Henry knows that as long as he can play well, there will be someone in the league who will hire him, who will make excuses for him, who will say "it won't happen here." And it will keep happening as long as he has the skills and athletic prowess to justify his place on the field. The second he can't, then he'll be cut, cast out, moralized against, and forgotten, and it will start again with someone else.

But as long as he can play, and no matter what people like you or me or Andy Gresh think, then Chris Henry will continue to get hired. Not privileged. Hired.

Of course, Gresh's job hinges on portraying the act of playing football as something noble and unique and wonderful, so he's perhaps got a vested interest in perpetuating that particular myth. But it is a myth, and deep down, I suspect he knows it. If he doesn't, he can just ask Deltha O'Neal. Or Steve Foley. Or, for that matter, Steve Howe. Or Ryne Duren. Or Micheal Ray Richardson. Or Shawn Kemp.

They'd probably tell him.
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