Monday, January 24, 2011
On Jay Cutler, in Six Brief Acts
I. It is time we come to some sort of cultural consensus that Deion Sanders is not a trustworthy source about anything.
II. It is hypocritical, if you believe that head injuries are a serious problem in the NFL, to judge someone's fitness for play based on outward appearances. Many people who have concussions don't look like they've had concussions, but this doesn't mean they should be sent back into a football game. It's true, Jay Cutler's problem was not his head but his knee, and it's true Jay Cutler didn't look hurt, but neither did LaDainian Tomlinson a few years back in that playoff loss,** and this did not seem to reflect on his legacy at all, largely because Tomlinson is a likeable guy who's run for many, many yards.
III. I believe Jason Whitlock is a provocative and entertaining columnist, but I think this is one of the more regrettable pieces of his career. "Right or wrong," Whitlock writes, "the culture dictates that you inject yourself with whatever is necessary to play." But isn't that what got us into this mess in the first place? Isn't that the same ethos that permitted coaches to overrule doctors, and the players themselves to feel that confessing to serious injury was somehow a sign of weakness? Isn't that the whole reason head injuries are threatening the very nature of football? If it's true that, as Cutler says, the team doctors would not allow him back into the game in the second half, isn't that, in fact, a sign of cultural progress? "Yeah," Whitlock says, "we were naive, stupid and probably exploited." So why is no one saying that Cutler's decision was a sign of maturity? Why is no one commending Cutler--and more importantly, the Bears team doctors--for refusing to conform to a code that is exploitative and (in certain cases) virtually inhuman?
IV. Of course, it is rather easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to Jay Cutler. He looks like an entitled malcontent*, and Rick Reilly tells us he is an entitled malcontent, though I'd like to think that Reilly was making a larger point in that column, which is that Cutler may refuse to play into some facile media narrative about him, but that this does not necessarily say anything about his actual character. The question is whether we are willing to judge someone based on surface impressions. I found myself perplexed as to why Cutler seemed mute and despondent on the bench during that game, but is it possible that A.) He was depressed about his inability to play football effectively, and B.) That he is simply not a Sis Boom Bah kind of guy?
V. Speaking of Sis Boom Bah kind of guys, didn't we just spend the past several years lambasting Brett Favre for his seeming aptitude in manipulating mass media in his favor? Wasn't our primary issue with Favre that he seemed capable of tremendous deception, that he portrayed himself as a team-first kind of dude while simultaneously looking out for himself at every turn? Favre spent two decades manipulating his image, and while we cannot question his toughness, we can question his relative intelligence. Because A.) Who knows if Brett Favre will be able to walk at the age of 50? B.) Who knows if any of his records will still stand? And C.) Who knows if his legacy will be as one of the five greatest quarterbacks in NFL history or as an aging redneck who so yearned to be loved that he couldn't help but share his private parts with the world? In that sense, isn't there something to be said for Jay Cutler's refusal to engage in building a false mythology?
VI. Or maybe the problem is that the NFL is not the NFL without all those layers of exploitation.
*I once had a boss at a terrible job I worked in my late 20s discipline me for "rolling my eyes" too often during meetings. In this case, she was actually right: I not only disliked the job, I disrespected her completely, and my face could not help but betray my true feelings. I'm not saying it's morally right for Jay Cutler to be dismissive of a media corps that is trying to do a job; but I do think there is an inherent shallowness to the game played between reporters and athletes (just as there was an inherent shallowness to the game that boss expected me to play while in that office), and I don't blame them for being skeptical.
**At one point, I actually thought to myself, "Why doesn't Cutler walk back to the locker room to at least pretend that his knee is being scoped? Why doesn't he walk with a more pronounced limp? Why doesn't he grimace every so often?" And then I realized that this is an incredibly shallow way to think.