Rooting For Injuries: Objectifying Players In The NFL


Human psychology has studied extensively our tendencies and resistances when we encounter criticisms about (a.) things we hold dear, (b.) things we don’t want to be true, or (c.) things we genuinely would prefer not to know.  Encountering information that runs against our wishes and desires triggers the tortured psychological response of cognitive dissonance, in which we begin to process contradictory thoughts.

It’s common enough in life, ranging from politics (“I like Bill Clinton”; “I detest the personal scandals that he is responsible for”) to sports, including our beloved NFL.

God, the NFL.  How I love it.  So much so that I follow every minute roster cut from 32 teams on a daily basis.  I’ve been reading season previews for teams the Chiefs won’t play in 2012.  I watch ESPN’s schedule release show.  I have named my pets and my cars after Chiefs players they remind me of.  I spend my spare time combing through different kinds of offenses, defenses, draft prospects that may not even declare in 2013, and backgrounds of camp bodies the Chiefs bring in every year, lest one of them actually ends up on the roster.

I’m not alone, of course.  The NFL is by far the most popular show in the United States, and for good reason.  It is the most entertaining to watch, it is the most fun to break down, and it is the richest for story lines and player personalities.  It’s not even close.

It should then come as no surprise that most of us regard our teams, our players, and collectively, our league as sacrosanct.  We follow it with relish, and it rewards us with thrills and heartbreak.

So what to make of a devastating piece from Bleacher Report by former fringe roster body Ryan Riddle, in which he details what “bubble players” who struggle (and often fail) to stay on an NFL roster have to endure physically, psychologically, and emotionally.

I would advise you to read the whole piece.  In it, Riddle expounds on the torture the greatest show in American sports imports to people trying to live the dream:

What is wrong with it you ask? Pain and injuries, media scrutiny, world-class competition, office politics, fear and insecurities, social hierarchies and the expectations of family, friends, coaches and teammates. And that’s not to mention unimaginable bodily harm veiled in secrecy, capable of destroying the average man—all for the right to be in a group so rare, so elite, that less than 2,000 premier athletes annually can claim the honor. An honor far too stressful to appreciate while fighting to survive life on the NFL bubble.

This piece shook me.

We all know the NFL is a very steep slope for those who haven’t reached the plateau of becoming “established.”  Starters one year may be out on the street the next.  That’s a radical way of conducting business, but the practice does make sense.  As hardcore fans, on sites like Arrowhead Addict, we recognize that better than most.

But not like this.  Not even during last year’s lockout was it this vivid.

The NFL survives by its fringe players.  They test our starters in practice, they take the reps to keep the stars fresh, they slam into each other on special teams so our most irreplacable players don’t have to.  They occasionally earn key roles doing those things every championship team needs, like gunning on the punt team or blocking for imbalanced offensive lines.  And once every rare while, they provide us with a priceless underdog story as they find a way to not just survive, but thrive in the NFL as stars.

It turns out that in order for the NFL to maintain its top-end brand, it reduces these players to borderline psychological abuse as most of them mercilessly mask their own physical pain to remain available for reps.  It treats its best players with kiddie gloves while simultaneously subjecting the worst through highly reported failures.

I don’t pretend to know how this can be changed, or if it ever can be.  My assumption is that this is almost an inevitable by-product of putting together a good show.

But given the gravity of this information, it’s been stunning to read some of the responses from some fans, as if this was something these fringe players had coming to them.

All human beings are implanted with a psychological shortcuts used to deal with the unpleasantness of cognitive dissonance about something we hold dear.  One of these shortcuts is confirmation bias, where we are far more likely to abide by information that reinforces some idea that we already believe, and are more likely to come up with endless “outs” to avoid having to acknowledge anything that puts our passions into compromising positions.

“Now wait a minute. This is a career Riddle decided to pursue.”

“As much as he complains, Riddle was in a position tens of thousands of people would kill to be in.”

“Oh well. Nothing we can do about it.”

As fallacious as each of these arguments are (and yes, they are all hollow and poorly reasoned), their lack of logical validity is not what makes them poisonous attitudes.  What makes them poisonous is that they are simply excuses, born out of our indifference to the plight of ALL players, NOT just the fringe players, who put their bodies and livelihoods on the line Sunday after Sunday.

It’s one thing to treat NFL players as commodities.  That’s what teams do, and it’s perfectly normal for fans to do it, too.  When a player is useful for your team’s success, you value him.  When a player is, ahem, less than useful, he is discarded.  It would be illogical to act otherwise.

But there’s a difference between simply thinking of them as commodities and acting as if they exist solely for your own personal pleasure or sorrow.

We do this when we blow off the concerns had by players who make our sport possible.  We do this when we applaud injuries and declare someone deserved it.  We do it when we verbally abuse players and coaches on the sidelines, which I’m sad to say too many Arrowhead fans have done with players from even our side.  And we do this when we root for our very own Chiefs players to get injured so they can no longer pester our team, which I’m sad to say many Chiefs fans have been guilty of this offseason with QB Matt Cassel, a guy who committed the unforgivable crimes of being traded here, signing a radically overpriced contract that any of us would have signed, and working harder than everybody else at One Arrowhead Drive to help this team win.

You are not the center of the universe.  The NFL is a business venture, albeit an incredibly profitable one, involving actual people that struggle to get into it and get occasionally exploited by it (or as Riddle argues, constantly and ritually exploited by it).  The differences they have from you end at their unique athleticism and football ability.

But when too many of us are faced with the reality that this is not the case, we waffle ourselves out of believing it in order to continue our lazy, abrasive behavior that only exerts more stress on the people who put their bodies on the line for our enjoyment.

Cut that shit out.

These guys may not deserve your unconditional love and support, but appreciating what they’re doing as human beings rather than as rock ‘em sock ‘em robots is the more rewarding approach to take.

At the very least, it’s not barbaric.