Risk no longer worth the 'reward'
Truth lies in disillusion with perception
"I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment." -- Rashard Mendenhall.
The Arizona Cardinals running back, despite his truther tweet, showed some thoughtful tendencies in his recent blog on the Huffington Post about the NFL. He's quitting, and it would be easy to dismiss his exit speech as a lame attempt to save face when he might not have been able to play another year anyway.
But there may be a bigger issue behind one man's decision to speak out.
I've covered football for a while now, and it is a relentless machine. Young men come into the game, and many get chewed up before they leave. Contracts aren't guaranteed, meaning there is financial incentive for players to hide the very injuries that are now revealed to be cumulative. The premature deaths of players like Junior Seau and Mike Webster are a stark reminder of the risks players undertake.
When Mendenhall was growing up in the game, these facts were just beginning to emerge -- and without help from the NFL's mild traumatic brain injury committee. I've never spoken to a player who said they wouldn't do it all over again. But that's human nature isn't it? We all reflexively affirm our choices because it's how we came to this point in our lives; how we met our spouses, had our children, found what happiness we have.
Football players are no different. How can they disavow a lifetime of choices -- choices that made them the men they have become?
But here's what may be changing: Rather than wring every last day from a football career, players like Mendenhall are deciding to hang up the cleats early. Whatever the reason, it's smart. Despite rules changes, helmet-to-helmet hits are still pervasive and running backs get a lot of the contact.
There's a YouTube video of Mendenhall hitting a cameraman at full speed in Super Bowl XLV. After the play he kneels and takes off his helmet. A freak play, but how many times during his career did he have to shake it off?
Risk versus reward. I've heard more than one player late into his career weigh the benefit of a contract at league minimum versus the ability to walk comfortably at age 40, and to remember where the keys are at age 50.
How much is that worth? It's the NFL's new math.
I'm not sure I buy what Rashard Mendenhall claimed when he wrote that in retiring from football, "I was [OK] with the idea of fading to black, and my legacy becoming 'What ever happened to that dude Rashard Mendenhall? He was pretty good for a few years, then he just vanished.'"
If Mendenhall was really OK with whatever people think, he would not have made his views public.
That said, I'm glad he did. I am also glad this was not an attempt to make us sympathize with the pounding he took physically during his NFL career.
Good for Mendenhall to acknowledge he made a ton of money for willingly playing a violent game. I'm happy for him (and not just because he and I graduated from the same high school in suburban Chicago) that for now anyway, he leaves the game relatively healthy after six years.
Having attended Niles West High School a couple million years before Mendenhall, I do find it a little hard to believe his contention that so much has changed since the golden age when he was there, all of eight years ago. But his point was a larger one obviously, that kids only interested in perfecting their touchdown dances may have it right because sports are all about entertainment.
We get it that Mendenhall wants to be viewed as a man of many dimensions and far from the stereotypical dumb jock. But when he says that because he was serious about being an athlete, this precluded him from being anything more, he falls short with his argument.
Mendenhall clearly took advantage of his platform as both an athlete and an entertainer. He profited from endorsements until 2011, when Champion dropped him after he chose to use that platform to tweet that he did not believe hijacked planes caused the collapse of the World Trade Center and people shouldn't celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden.
Mendenhall later tried to clarify what he said and sounded sincere in his apology for saying it. But now he tells us he is retiring because he no longer wants to put his body at risk "for the sake of entertainment." I think the truth was closer to something else he wrote, that he was disillusioned with the fact that what others said about him, shaped the perception of him.
Trouble is, that's how it works when you're a professional athlete, a celebrity, an entertainer. People listen to what you say. Even when you take it back. Even when you apologize.
Mendenhall created the persona that was larger than just sport. He can't take it back now.