Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Like It or Not, NFL Has Best Athletes in Sports

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJuly 6, 2016

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 24:  Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots makes a catch on fourth down against Chris Harris #25 and  Josh Bush #20 of the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter in the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 24, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I tweeted NFL players are the best athletes. All hell broke loose after that.

1. Sticking Your Head Into the Teeth of Twitter Can Be Dangerous

It was a simple tweet and it went like this: 

Such a simple, non-offensive tweet. It was in response to the massive contracts NBA players have been receiving since the start of free agency. I thought that if basketball players were getting that kind of cash, why weren't the best athletes in the universe making that kind of money?

It wasn't meant to troll. It was just an observation.

Hoo boy, did I open the floodgates. Thousands of responses poured in. For days and days. People interrupted their celebrations of our freedom from the British Empire and hot dog massacres to call me an idiot or defend me. The takes that followed had the heat of a billion solar flares. I needed an Apollo heat shield. Responses ranged from "eat a d--k" to "you're butthurt" to "idiot" to "your an idiot" to, well, you get the point.

Most of the more civilized responses fell into three categories:

1. "Please like my sport." Tweeters thought I was being an NFL homer. I love football, but I just wrote a book about its arrogance and possible end in the not-so-distant future. I don't care whether you like football.

2. LeBron James. This was the most common. He's the best athlete in the world; therefore, my point is wrong.

3. (Insert sport here) is better. Rugby was the most common answer here.

What surprised me was the level of anger the tweet generated. I know we live in polarizing times filled with keyboard special forces warriors, but the amount of vitriol over something so silly was a tad shocking, even in these times. I wasn't tweeting about Brexit. Or Donald Trump.

The reason for the overreaction, to me, was twofold. It goes to an old debate about what exactly qualifies as athleticism. That is wrapped around a new, rising resentment some sports fans have toward the popularity (and brutality) of football.

As far as athleticism, the true athlete can do a little bit of everything. What differentiates NFL players from others is the level of violence they undergo while doing their jobs. There's almost nothing in sports like playing cornerback. They have to take on massive offensive linemen, tackle 230-pound backs and cover the fastest guys on the field.

If you don't get why it's incredibly athletic for a 6'6", 300-pound offensive lineman to move like a 150-pounderwhile wearing a bunch of equipment and another 300-pounder beating the hell out of himI seriously can't help you.

Then there are multi-sport stars guys like Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Jim Brown. The former played two sports at the same time. The latter is in the NFL and lacrosse Halls of Fame.

KEVIN RIVOLI/Associated Press

Or Randy Moss. Or Mike Vick. Or Rob Gronkowski. These are big humans who run like deer while wearing suits of armor, often in harsh weather conditions, and do their jobs under extreme acts of violence. That's what differentiates them.

The one weak spot in the armor of my argument is that Buffalo wide receiver Marquise Goodwin recently failed to make the Olympics as a long jumper. He finished seventh in the trials Sunday. If he was such a good athlete, some of you will say, then why didn't he make the Olympics?

Part of the answer is how many long jumpers could be also be NFL wide receivers? (And speaking of athletes, the daughter of former Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham just made the Olympics in the high jump.)

I'd rank the best athletes in all of sports this way:

• NFL players

• MMA fighters

• Hockey players

All three are doing extremely athletic things under physically punishing circumstances (hockey players do it while skating on ice).

And yes, I know, rugby is brutal as well and features some good athletes. Just not NFL-caliber.

As other tweeters pointed out, some of the angry reactions had racist undertones. Some tweeters simply hate the fact that a mostly black league is thought to have the best athletes (I know, shocker, part of the internet is racist).

Still, the bulk of the outrage (and this was expressed often) appears to stem from a resentment over the NFL's immense power and how some non-NFL fans believe the NFL achieved this power through lying and abusing its players. Head trauma was brought up over and over.

This has nothing to do with calmly assessing athleticism. Their hatred over how football handled CTE and head trauma (decades of denial) is so intense, it clouded their thought process.

So, in all, this is a little fun (mostly) during the slow offseason. Oh, and there was one person who told me gamers were the best athletes because of hand-eye coordination.

So, there's that.

2. Why Do NBA Players Make More Than NFL Players?

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

The rash of rich NBA contracts to a bunch of no-names and locker room cancers like Dwight Howard caused a flurry of reactions from NFL players. Things got slightly heated. A former NFL player and top union executive tweeted a defense of NFL contracts.

The question is why do players in the NBA, a far less violent sport, make more money than NFL players, who are part of the most popular sport in America?

Part of the answer is easy: smaller roster size.

But the larger answer is more complicated, and it goes beyond the effectiveness of the two unionsthe attitude of ownership.

I've covered both sports extensively, and in the NBA, ownership views the players much more as partners than in the NFL. In the NFL, owners see players more as property. I don't use that word casually or accidentally.

It's why the league, with little guilt, offered flawed results of its investigation into the effects of head trauma. The league will dispute it hid anything, but that's what it did—intentional or not. It sees players as interchangeable.

NBA owners look at their players, see their influence and embrace that influence by compensating them for their roles in driving the league's economy. This isn't to say NBA owners are subservient. They aren't. They just view the world differently. The NBA has more Mark Cubans than the NFL. That's a good thing and why the NBA views its players the way it does.

3. Before LeBron and Durant, There Was Deion Sanders

RON HEFLIN/Associated Press

Last note on NBA and NFL comparisons. Before LeBron James went to Miami to form a superteam, and before Kevin Durant joined Golden State to form a second superteam, there was Deion Sanders, and the pseudo-NFL equivalent.

The comparison is, of course, inexact. The NFL and NBA are different universes, particularly when it comes to how one player can affect each. But Sanders was the closest thing to a LeBron or a Durant the NFL ever saw (even more than Reggie White as a free agent).

Sanders went to a Dallas team that was already loaded with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. The defense was also good. So as great as Sanders wasand I believe he's the best defensive player of all time (in a close matchup with Lawrence Taylor)—he went to a team that was already great. Just like Durant.

Sanders would write in his book Power, Money & Sex: How Success Almost Ruined My Life, the Raiders offered him more cash than the Cowboys. Sanders picked Dallas because he had a better chance to win. He said there were other reasons, but I believe the biggest was a chance to win.

Durant, like Sanders, understands how much power he has, and that power is his to use as he desires. No one thought Sanders was soft going to a loaded Dallas team; they thought he was smart. So is Durant.

4. Where Might Johnny Manziel Land?

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 27:  Quarterback Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns walks off the field, after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs on December 27, 2015 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Arena Football League Commissioner Scott Butera recently made it clear he'd love to have Johnny Manziel in his league. There, Butera explained, Manziel could show he was over his weapons-grade knuckleheaded-ness. Butera didn't exactly put it that way, but that was his point.

Manziel has recently told several NFL players that he realizes he may never get back to the NFL, and if he does, it will have to be through a route like the CFL or the Arena league.

Truth is, I'm not sure Canada would take him. Or, if it did, he'd have the same struggles there as he did in the NFL. People have this mistaken impression that the talent in Canada is significantly worse than in the NFL. The talent level isn't the same, of course, but it's not significantly lower.

I just don't think Manziel is that good, and that lack of raw ability would show there the same way it did in the NFL.

5. Second Painkiller Lawsuit Not Welcome News for NFL

The first lawsuit from players about painkiller use in the NFL was tossed. But the second one was allowed to proceed. What does this mean? Maybe nothing. But maybe it could end up meaning a great deal. What's certain is that it will again focus attention on pain-killing alternatives, namely, the use of marijuana by players.

As more details from this suit emergeand they will soonit will illustrate how players ease the pain of playing football and how the NFL's attitude toward marijuana remains archaic. At the very least, it will continue to force the NFL to look hard at its policies and seek better ways for players to relieve discomfort.

6. Concussions End Another NFL Career

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 7:  Mike DeVito #70 of the Kansas City Chiefs signals to the crowd after being taken off the field from a injury during a game against the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium on September 7, 2014 in Kansas City, Missouri.  Th
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Very quietly, another NFL player retired because of concussions. This time it was former Chiefs defensive lineman Mike DeVito. He said in a truly riveting interview with Sirius XM's Alex Marvez and Rick Neuheisel that his wife was a key factor in the decision, and her main issue—and hiswere the concussions.

“If it was just me up here and I didn't have a family, my wife and two sons, that'd be one thing," DeVito said. "I probably would have went back. But my wife has really helped me make that decision, to say, 'OK, you know, I can’t sit through watching you get these concussions and watching you tear your Achilles and all those kind of things.’ 

"And the thing is, when you start messing with your headyou're likely to recover from an Achilles injury or a knee injury and things like thatbut when I started getting concussions, I had two right in a row, you've got to be really careful."

Earlier in the interview, he said, "I think the more and more stuff that comes out about the injuries and, obviously, the concussions is a big thing now. Just [because of] the long-term effect of stuff and the studies that are being done, I think guys are trying to find that balance between, 'OK, I'm playing it as well as I can and I'm doing things on the field, but at the same time I'm making sure my quality of life after football is also going to be something that's not struggling.'

"So I think guys are balancing that out. It's a tough call. You know, it's an easier call when the NFL makes it for you. But when you have to make that call yourself and say, 'OK, is it time to get out of here?', it's tough. But you think down the line, when I'm 40-50 years old, I have a family that needs me around and needs me coherent to be able to function, and so that really weighs into the decision-making."

7. Matt Forte on Loyalty

Dec 27, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte (22) looks on from the bench during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Chicago Bears defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26-21. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It was true in the NFL in 1950 and it will be true in the NFL in 2050.

"There's no loyalty anyway because they don't care about the player specifically," former Bears running back Forte said recently of the league. "They care about the team. No matter how strong the ties are between the player and the team. You're always just a jersey number."

Forte, who recently spoke at a community church in St. Charles, Illinois, had some interesting views about his former quarterback Jay Cutler, according to Pro Football Weekly, while also detailing how he dealt with the mercurial Brandon Marshall, with whom he'll reunite as a member of the Jets. 
 

8. If the NFL Comprised the Cast of Hamilton 

Just wanted to share this. Because it's brilliant. That is all.

9. Cris Carter's Son Has a Future Again with the NFL

Duron Carter, the son of Hall of Famer Cris Carter, was suspended one game by the CFL for an over-the-top touchdown celebration. The flop by the coach was beautiful, by the way.

When I asked an assistant coach about the play, the answer I got back was surprising. He didn't care about the celebration. He added he believes Carter "will be in the NFL sooner than later."

He's watched some of Carter recently and thinks he has made strides since he was last in the NFL in 2015 with Indianapolis.

So it's possible we see Carter again in the NFLminus the celebration.

10. NFL Adds Historic Games to YouTube

I know what I'll be doing for parts of August.

This was a smart decision by the league. Fans love reliving the past, especially fans of franchises that used to win a lot. Except in Cleveland. Unless the league is showing Cavs highlights. But everywhere else, yes.

 Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL. 

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