The Minnesota Vikings have docked wide receiver Troy Williamson one game check for missing last Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers to attend the Monday funeral of his maternal grandmother . . .Coach Brad Childress told Twin Cities-area media following Thursday's practice that the decision was on a "business principle" of the Vikings organization . . . Childress cited the cases of two players, Minnesota defensive tackle Pat Williams and Indianapolis wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who appeared in games shortly after the deaths of family members.
Say what you will about MLB's often contentious relationship with the players, but at least there's a history there -- recently anyway -- informed by two powerful entities battling on more or less equal terms. What's more, once those battles subside, the acrimony tends to be pushed to the background, and the relationship tends to be a typical employer-employee affair. The owners generally treat the players with respect, and people tend to approach their jobs and their personal lives like adults.
In contrast, the NFL treats its players like indentured servants who should thank ownership and the league at every turn for being allowed the privilege of sacrificing their bodies and long-term health for the current TV deal. Ownership can terminate contracts on a whim while the players are stuck. Fines are routinely levied in such a way as to constitute ex-post facto laws. Players were, until very, very recently, punished for missing optional offseason workouts (and some have suggested that they are still punished for it). The pension system is atrocious, post-career health care for on-field injuries is a joke, and the life expectancy for ex-NFL players only looks good when compared to professional wrestling and coal mining.
There may be reasons for all of this -- how Gene Upshaw still has a job I have no idea -- but it all leads to a sport that can only be enjoyed by totally ignoring everything that happens off the field. And as I think this blog established a long time ago, I'm not the sort of person who can limit my consumption of a sport to the game itself.
Obviously all professional sports are big businesses, but it seems as though only the NFL routinely goes out of its way to remind us of this, eschewing even the pretense that it's just a game and its players are out there to have some fun. And even if it is just a pretense, I think it's an important one.
Who among us hasn't indulged the idyll fantasy of life as the 10th guy in the bullpen? Such daydreams aren't about the glory, obviously. They're about being around a game we love during a long but enjoyable season with all of the ups and downs that entails. About having a job so cool -- ballplayer! -- that you would wake up each morning excited to go to work. There's a humanity to baseball, its rhythms, its personalities and its rules that allow us to envy the guys who get to play it for reasons other than simply the paychecks and bottom-of-the-ninth heroic fantasies. Now ask yourself: whenever you hear about the off the field life of a random, workaday NFL player, do you ever wish you were him? An entire mythology has sprung up around the not-good-enough-to-make-it ballplayer. The NFL's version is a near-tragic drama.
I appreciate that this is a subjective judgment. Baseball is obviously my first sporting love, so I am predisposed to prefer almost anything about it to almost anything about football. But I would have to think that it's a problem for true football fans on some level too -- the thoughtful ones anyway -- and when your fans are troubled, how deep can their devotion truly be?
Am I off base here? Football fans: how do you deal with this stuff?