If you follow concussion-ball at all, you've no doubt noticed the NFL has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. There have been domestic violence incidents involving Baltimore's Ray Rice, Carolina's Greg Hardy, Arizona's Jonathan Dwyer and San Francisco's Ray McDonald, as well as a "corporal punishment" issue with Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson. Not only have the individuals shown themselves in a bad light, but their coaches, front office executives, and owners have faced scrutiny for either covering up their arrests or giving their players nothing more than a slap on the wrist until public pressure forced more severe punishments (in all cases except for McDonald, who hasn't been charged with any crime yet). Even Commissioner Roger Goodell is being taken to task, with a number of groups calling for his resignation.
Watching football kind of makes me feel gross these days, even more so than normal grossness that's involved in seeing guys suffering short and long-term debilitating injuries week in and week out, broken bones and torn ligaments running the full "Web M.D." gamut from head to toe. These injuries lead to artificial joints, addictions to pain meds and a lifetime of discomfort. And the players who only have to worry about their bodies are the lucky ones.
The unfortunate players have to deal with neurological problems. According to a published study in the September online edition of Neurology, NFL players are three times more likely to die from neurological diseases than the U.S. population, four times more likely to die from Alzheimer's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (the same ALS as all those ice bucket challenges). Footballers are far more likely to suffer from dementia and extreme depression and there have been an alarming number of suicides including Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Jovan Belcher's murder-suicide.
Rob Bironas, a former kicker, died as a result of a single-passenger one-vehicle car accident late Saturday night, and reports are circulating that he tried to run fellow motorists off the road before losing control of his SUV and flipping over into a ditch. His wife said he left their home without telling her and reported him missing around 10:30 p.m. ESPN.com published an excellent column on Friday by Dan Le Betard, before the Bironas incident, raising several important questions about whether football is in some way responsible for these off-the-field displays of rage.
I can only imagine what it's like being a Vikings or Panthers or Ravens fan right now. How do you root for your team after something like that? Do you just throw that star's jersey out of your closet? Do you try to rationalize it by saying it was a one-time mistake and that the player has been a model citizen and a valued member of the community otherwise? Do you tell yourself that it's unfair to let one bad apple spoil the bunch? Or do you truly distance yourself from all of it, under the theory that it's the uniform you root for, not the individuals in them?
Let's, for the sake of argument, suppose that this news wasn't merely isolated to football (because the issues certainly aren't) and ask how we would react if something like this impacted our little silver and black corner of the world. If you've been paying attention to all the awful NFL stories, you no doubt shook your head and had the same two reactions that I had:
1) Tsk, tsk, this would never happen with the Spurs.
(Three seconds later...)
2) Wait, how would I react if it happened to the Spurs?
Our local heroes have reputations as perfect little boring angels, but we know that's not the case. Surely there have been incidents that Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford have had to deal with. Buford himself had a D.U.I. arrest in 2011, Tony Parker and his former wife had an issue with a bicycle cop in 2005, but generally the Spurs have been fantastic about staying out of the police blotter compared to other teams, especially about the serious stuff.
Gary Neal was acquitted of rape accusations while at La Salle, and of course there's the trade for Stephen Jackson in 2012 despite his role in the "Malice in the Palace" while with the Pacers in 2005 -- and the more troubling incident of him discharging of five rounds of a pistol he brought to an Indianapolis strip club in 2006. No Spurs have been arrested for anything like what's happening to the NFL guys that I can dig up, though.
But what if someone was? How would it affect your relationship to the team? Would it depend on the alleged crime? How do you rank the viciousness of sexual assault versus vehicular manslaughter versus domestic abuse versus child abuse? Would you want the Spurs to dismiss the individual from the team immediately, to suspend with pay or to keep playing them pending resolution of the case, like the Lakers did with Kobe Bryant? Would their decision in that regard affect how, or even if, you still rooted for them?
And the more complicated question is whether we have different standards for different Spurs. Suppose it was Manu Ginobili who'd been caught switch-handed like Peterson. Would we explain it away under some rationalization like "Maybe that's what they do in Argentina, we shouldn't judge," (Please understand, this is a hypothetical, I have no idea whatsoever how children are raised in Argentina).
Would we give Ginobili more leeway than, say, Matt Bonner?
Suppose it was Duncan who was accused of doing to his former wife what Rice or Hardy did. What if that was actually the reason for their divorce, her being afraid for her safety and they just swept it all under the rug with some financial settlement. It's extremely unlikely, of course, but could you ever look at him the same way again?
Now what if it was not Duncan but rather Jeff Ayres? Would you give Ayres a second thought before the team booted him out of town?
What if Marco Belinelli, who has already shown a certain lack of respect toward women, did something unthinkable? Would any of us try to rationalize it as him literally not knowing what "no" meant?
There's also another complicated philosophical question here. Would one isolated incident tarnish an individual forever in your mind or would you think of it as just a one-time mistake? Everyone deserves a second chance, right? Would you be more inclined to give someone like Parker or Kawhi Leonard more chances than a Cory Joseph or a Kyle Anderson?
It's not easy or comfortable to think of these things, I know. The fact of the matter is that no matter how many interviews we watch, or funny H-E-B commercials we see, none of us really know any of these guys. We like to think of them as good people, or at least solid citizens -- and in many cases they are -- but we just have no way of knowing. They're as much strangers to us as we are to them. Forty-five-second interview clips tell us nothing at all about who they are as people off the court living their private lives, and we imagine them to be as heroic in private as they are in public because that's how we want them to be.
The reality is that star athletes aren't all that different than everyone else. They just happen to be able to run a lot faster and jump a lot higher and shoot basketballs more accurately than we can on our best day. But they're still human, and that means they're flawed. Some flaws are far worse than others. It's easy in a one-major-professional sport town such as San Antonio to hero worship the Spurs and wish we were like them. Well, the good news is we're more alike then you might think. The bad news is a lot of us happen to be jerks.
Please don't be jerks, Spurs.