Johnny Knox's Career Speaks Volumes to NFL Players: Get Money, and Get It Now
The recent injury-related retirement of Johnny Knox serves as just one more reminder of the fleeting nature of a pro footballer's career. It also shows why players are right to pursue maximum fiscal protection.
Of course, players manipulating and demanding their way to more money is one thing sure to rile fans of any sport. However, the real issue is the sense of entitlement and ownership fans often adopt toward their sports, and more importantly, the athletes who play them.
It has become one of the more distasteful and misguided aspects of modern sporting culture that fans believe they own the game and its protagonists. It is precisely that kind of thinking that promotes the idea that players have little to no right to angle for extra money.
Those who do are adorned with labels like "greedy" and "mercenary." They are quickly designated as examples of all the so-called negative aspects of modern sports and athletics. In some cases this argument may even have some merit.
When Albert Haynesworth landed his $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins in 2009, he instantly became one such poster boy. He fueled the perception of his greed and abuse of the system by failing to perform at a high level and consistently acting as a disruptive influence on the team.
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His refusal to switch to a 3-4 system in 2010 was seen as a direct insult to paying NFL fans everywhere. The money he was getting paid was deemed to preclude his right to complain, no matter what.
Never mind that Haynesworth might have reasonably argued that the schematic switch negated the skill set he was signed to provide. Fans didn't ask why coaches in Washington were wasting what Haynesworth did best. They were simply offended that the $100 million man had dared to complain at all.
That's because fans often expect a strange dichotomy from NFL players. They want willing, obedient participants. Yet they also demand that these emotionless performers entertain with thrilling and brash displays of skill and attitude.
Fans don't flock to wallflowers in the NFL. They instead adore those players who are as emotionally volatile as they are athletically skillful. Then fans complain when those players bring that same defiant swagger to bear at the negotiating table.
Whether any players are worth the lucrative salaries they often demand depends on the answer to another question: How much value do you put on those displays of awesome athleticism and skillful excitement from the NFL's finest?
Is a market that deems a player's skill commensurate with $100 million crazy and overinflated? Of course it is. Yet are those memorable moments provided by players every season worthy of being treasured by fans? They certainly are.
As those who provide those moments, players naturally seek to endorse and increase their own value. This isn't one of those arguments based on the disrespectful assumption that "you'd do it if you could."
It is also true that some players do play for the love of the game. However, that doesn't mean they should be expected to do it for free. After all, players are safeguarding their own futures.
That may read like an overly optimistic or even naive view, yet it is the right one. Because after all the notoriety has gone and the physical skills have diminished, players do often face uncertain and sometimes even bleak futures.
Not every battle-worn player who hangs up his cleats is able to prepare an adequate plan for life off the gridiron. Bart Oates, the stellar center who won Super Bowls with the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, went on to practice law after his playing days.
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However, those able to successfully steer a course away from football after their playing days are rare indeed. Fans only have to glance at an NFL broadcast on any network and note the litany of ex-players given air time to know that.
Not having an obvious choice after a tough career is a harsh reality for many. When Curtis Martin was inducted into the Hall of Fame, his former coach, Bill Parcells, commended him for how he had prepared for life after the game.
Of course, the contrast between Martin's fortunes and those of ex-players who often descend into bankruptcy only applies to those fortunate enough to retain reasonable health after the NFL.
That brings things to the main issue at the heart of this argument: Every player's career is only ever one snap from being over.
That's a familiar and, for some, maybe even a tired argument. However, its familiarity makes it no less legitimate.
Knox's injury-enforced retirement at the age of 26 is just one of the nightmare scenarios every NFL player hopes to avoid. It is too easy for fans to say "well, they know the risks" and "they are paid enough to cope."
Exactly how much is enough to support a lifestyle and perhaps a family when possibly facing up to the end of a working life before 30? It's easy to say players know the dangers when we as fans aren't living and working with the spectre of those dangers every day.
When those dangers become realities, they add a startling perspective to player demands for more money.
My favourite game is the 1997 winner-take-all clash between the New York Jets and Detroit Lions. However, the memory of that game is always tempered by seeing the tragic price young men can pay in the NFL.
At the time, Reggie Brown was an excellent 4-3 linebacker for the Lions. Quick, instinctive and active, he seemed like a rising star. Sadly, his career was cut short and his life derailed by the kind of freak accident that could occur on any play in any NFL game.
When tackling a runner, Brown collided head first with the back of a Jets offensive lineman. Narrowly escaping permanent paralysis, he was nonetheless forever scarred. Would anyone seriously begrudge Brown or any player a demand for greater financial rewards?
Of course many, if not all, fans would probably not begrudge this. The problem is the same fans can often contribute to a culture that only emphasizes the dangers players face.
Player safety has rightly become a more prevalent issue in recent years in the NFL. However, that doesn't stop many from resisting or even chiding attempts to improve that safety.
Stricter tackling laws are frequently criticized and cited as the so-called death of "defensive football." Think of how loud some fans cheer when a safety delivers a head-hunting hit to a wide receiver daring to go across the middle.
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Opponents of moves to eliminate vicious hits will simply dole out familiar and cynical jibes about football being a "physical sport" or "a man's game." Any fan that would call dangerous hits "just part of football" cannot then complain when players use the dangers of their career as motivation for extra money.
Of course football is a physical sport. Yet at its best, it is the combination of athletic excellence married to flawless technique. Cheering helmet-to-helmet hits is just a way for some fans to believe they are entitled to watch a true bloodthirsty gladiatorial experience.
However, it is not only fans who are guilty of the creation and maintenance of this culture based on a lust to safely view raw violence. The league itself fails its fans when it promotes greater player safety but reinstates Gregg Williams after the nefarious bounty scandal.
The culture of machismo stimulates the dangers players face. Fans who appropriate this culture as the supposed true face of the game are in no position to criticise the psyche of the modern player.
Johnny Knox's injury-shortened career is one of many reminders that players who use their short window of opportunity to cash in should be given a pass by fans.
Knox's story tells the players that they make the NFL the game we the fans love, and to get the money while they can.
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