Saturday, May 12, 2007

Get Off Your High Horses

Well, here's the news that I'm sure you all already know:

RB Ricky Williams reportedly failed a drug test in April. The banned substance detected was marijuana. This test marks the fifth time that Williams has violated the NFL's drug policy. He had been in the process of seeking reinstatement from Commissioner Roger Goodell, but he will now have to wait until September to try and regain entry into the league. Since this violation occurred while Williams is suspended, it is considered part of the rehabilitation process and thus does not carry a suspension with it. However, Ricky's psychologist will suggest that Goodell postpone the application for reinstatement until September.

Here's what I think:

For starters, Ricky Williams will most likely never play for Miami again, even if he is eventually reinstated. Furthermore, I would be surprised if he ever took the field for any team after this latest incident. And that is unfortunate.

What's more unfortunate is the reaction from both fans and media that have surfaced in the wake of this report. Of course, all the hate and malice directed at Ricky was to be expected. It's what I've heard spewed about him from his very first suspension. Most of these tirades and complaints included some form of labeling Ricky a "pot-head", a "coward", a "quitter", or a "moron."

To those people who are criticizing Ricky: Get the hell off of your high horses.

What right do you think you have to rip Ricky to pieces? Are you so callous and unsympathetic that you can find justification and pleasure in doing that?

Trust me, I don't condone the use of marijuana, and there should be no excuses made for breaking the clearly stated rules of the NFL. But that's not what this is about. There is always such bitter controversy surrounding Ricky because of the feelings people have toward the game of football and the entitlement they think their role as a fan gives them. After being suspended, countless fans claimed that Ricky had in some way let them down. They yelled that he was selfish for retiring. I still remember the day that Ricky retired. I had just come home from work and flipped on ESPN only to see nonstop coverage of the breaking news. I was shocked and dismayed, but I never thought that he was being selfish. Even though football is such a huge part of our lives as fans, it's just entertainment. Sure, these guys are getting paid millions to play a game (albeit an incredibly violent one), and I can attest that that very game infuses itself into our lives and becomes such a huge passion and source of joy. But these players are more than the game they play. A guy like Ricky happens to be much more. For him, football wasn't a great passion. That's hard to understand for us die-hard fans. Those people who criticize Ricky can't accept the fact that football simply doesn't mean nearly as much to him as it does to them. And my question is: Why is that wrong? Why is that a good reason to crucify him? My answer: It's not.

Ricky may have had some of the greatest, most spectacular skills of any running-back that the NFL has ever seen. For that reason, is he supposed to feel some sort of obligation to work at a job that he has little desire to perform? Let's say you were the greatest accountant around. Would you feel the need to work in an accounting office even if you felt alone, isolated, and out of place while there? Probably not. Why is Ricky being held to a different standard? It's because as a society we place so much importance on the money and fame that comes with being a star NFL player. To go against the grain and willingly choose to be an outsider is considered preposterous. It's so easy to denounce Ricky for choosing something so alternative like yoga as a preferred life profession rather than raking in millions for getting his body abused and beaten on a weekly basis.

Don't we always tell our children to do what makes them happy? That's what Ricky was doing, and he seemed to be happy and at peace as the yoga instructor in California - a huge departure from his days of giving interviews in the NFL while wearing a helmet or stalking the sidelines quiet and alone. Ricky was clinically diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, and while that should not excuse him from resorting to marijuana, it should elicit some human compassion and understanding from everyone. Not every player can be as cool and collected as Jason Taylor in the face of the blinding spotlight that you step into as a member of the NFL. To me, that very idea of being so scrutinized all the time is daunting indeed. Now imagine what that experience would be like if you suffered from social anxiety. How cruel do you have to be to see the anguish that playing football causes a person and still demand that they show up and perform?

Ricky Williams doesn't owe any one of us a damn thing. Hell, I think more than a few "fans" owe him an apology for viciously tearing him apart. I respect Ricky's decision to not embrace football. That's a personal decision, and it seems like it has made him a happier person. I respect the fact that he doesn't derive self-worth from money and fame. I hate the fact that he's called selfish and moronic for making those decisions. We think of the NFL as an idealized fantasy because as outside observers it provides us with something meaningful and enjoyable to spend our energy on. Football is an escape for us. It's not an escape for Ricky. For him, football is a constant reminder that he's different from everyone around him.

He wasn't being selfish when he retired and he wouldn't be selfish if he never comes back. Playing in the NFL is his choice. The pleasure that we derive from watching him play football should have no impact on whether he continues to play or not. Ricky's critics are the ones being selfish and moronic. Stop for one second and forget about Ricky Williams, the star running-back, and think about Ricky Williams the human being. If you can do that, you should be able to see why it's so wrong to vilify him.

I will always be a fan of Ricky Williams - both as a football player and as a person. Most people won't feel the need to think of him as anything more than a padded workhorse, and those people will continue to hate him for "what he owes them." Ricky, you don't have to carry our baggage. Do what makes you happy.

That deserves nothing but respect.

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