"They're making millions! I can criticize them all I like!"
Is that so?
The disconnect NFL fans feel from the athletes who entertain them is frightening. The belief that we can't show respect to someone because their career places them on a television screen is a ridiculous notion adopted by most fans.
The players don't sit on thrones of impunity. The fans only assumed they should be placed on one.
For every Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Reggie Bush that fans create and worship, there are 30 more players like Sean Morey, Domenik Hixon, and Steve Gleason receiving minimal glory—but all of the same bumps and bruises.
The NFL is supposed to be the sport for the common man. It's the blue-collar game for men who appreciate just how much effort goes into one victory. It's for the hard-workers who understand that success is only achieved as a part of a team.
This isn't a one-man game like baseball. There aren't any one year, $20 million contracts given to over-the-hill players.
There might be the one NFL player whose greatness allows him to stand out and transcend the sport—but there isn't one man in pads who does it alone.
In my journeys through the NFL world, I've come across fans who refuse to honor the humanity of the professional football player. We disregard their human element and abandon any notion that these men may be exactly like us.
When we deny those courtesies to an NFL player because of his position on a television screen, is it an admission that we believe he's above us?
I didn't think so. We're a proud bunch.
If the NFL were "real" life
In our personal, day-to-day interactions, we extend courtesies to our common man. There are behaviors that are deemed rude and unacceptable by society that we do our best to avoid.
We never ask strangers how much money they make. It is inappropriate and—quite frankly—none of our business. It's a question that when heard, forces one to raise their eyebrows in shock.
Even in the rare instance that it is relevant, we preface the conversation with a cautious disclaimer: "I hate to be rude, but..."
But with our NFL athletes, we scour the news wires for updated contract information. We look to openly discuss the value of our favorite team's employees and determine how much they're worth.
I don't know about you, but none of my employers have ever disclosed any details about our department's budget. We never knew how much our co-workers made, or how close we were to the cap when we desperately needed overtime to make ends meet.
Imagine an NFL fan who doesn't scoff at the contract a new hire just received when compared against the rest of the organization's needs.
It's a double-standard. And it's one that isn't always accurate.
The numbers are lying
A contract that claims to pay someone $42 million over seven years is astronomical. It's an absurd amount of money that most of us would never know what to do with. But when all things are considered, it's really not as hefty as it sounds.
NFL players do not live tax-free. Imagine how much is taken out of their paycheck as soon as they receive it.
One of my pay stubs from a previous employer saw me lose $130.39 in Federal Income Tax, $73.87 in Social Security Tax, $20.91 in Medicare Tax, and $48.82 in New York State Income Tax. Oh, and $25.37 in New York City Income Tax.
Those deductions don't include my health benefits or my 401k.
At the end of the year, the amount of money directly deposited into my bank account versus what my documented salary was supposed to amount to had a discrepancy of over $9,000.
Imagine what that discrepancy looks like on a check that's supposed to build up to a $42 million salary.
...And those are the star players
That $42 million salary I used as a reference point is the type of contract doled out to big-name free agents and top draft picks. There are 40—or more—other men on these rosters who never receive those kinds of contracts.
They don't receive the endorsements, the commercial spots, the paid appearances at your local sports' equipment store, or the ESPN interviews and coverage.
They come to work on Sunday afternoons, get cheered and jeered accordingly, and play for veteran-minimum contracts.
These are men who receive annual salaries of roughly $400,000. It's certainly not a terrible amount of money—even after the government wets their beaks. But fans must consider that these players don't have the long careers of a Brett Favre or a Rodney Harrison.
The multiple-year contracts some players receive aren't even promised to them. What chance does a third-year safety from a small college, fighting for a roster spot, have at the big payday that could secure him for the rest of his life?
A lot of players who make the pros wash out before they ever have a chance to suit up on gameday. Even the players who do make active rosters are usually expendable—ask Shaun Alexander.
Can we really criticize a player who gives his all for the NFL in the two or three seasons his body can tolerate?
He may have received some nice NFL checks in his short career, but it's not nearly enough to live on for the rest of his life. He can't retire on his check, pay his medical bills, or put his children through college.
How many ex-NFL players do we hear of with car dealerships and insurance companies?
Still don't sympathize?
The contract numbers are still too much to actually feel bad, huh?
As of 2007, the average, single male, employed on a full-time basis in America makes $44,255 per year.
After 10 years, we may have made enough money to be compared to a special-teams role player in the NFL.
After 20 years, we've probably received the equivalent to a one-year contract given to a veteran offensive lineman for depth.
After 30 years, we know retirement is right around the corner, and we've made about the same as a back-up tight end for one year.
And when we retire, if we've saved and invested wisely, our financial totals could resemble the first year of a multi-year rookie contract.
But we don't have the physical trauma of being an NFL player.
Sure, carpal tunnel hurts like hell—but the closest we've come to a concussion is the persistent nagging of a needy wife. Medical treatment isn't cheap. It's why the NFL has placed a premium on helping retired players handle their medical needs.
And it's exactly why we shouldn't be so quick to cast stones.