Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
Full disclosure: I’m a Baltimore Ravens fan and a Lamar Jackson fan. I’ve mentioned this in other articles and it’s in my bio. So read this article through whatever lens you want. However, I write this, not from the perspective of an apologist for any one player or organization but rather, as a coach and a man who values the humanity of people regardless of how much I root for (or against) them.
It hasn’t even been a month since America witnessed Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapse on the Cincinnati Bengals turf from cardiac arrest. Yet, we’ve already moved on to “business as usual” in the NFL. On Super Wild Card weekend, a panel of analysts including former players and a former coach discussed Lamar Jackson’s status and his return to play despite his lingering knee injury.
For context, Jackson, who plays quarterback for the Ravens, is widely respected as one of the best players on any given Sunday. On December 4, however, he suffered a PCL sprain that sidelined him for weeks. Jackson is in the final year of his rookie contract. He’s negotiating a fully-guaranteed contract, one higher than any quarterback in the league (in line with the agreement the Cleveland Browns recently gave Deshaun Watson). Jackson also does not have an agent and is handling all negotiations himself with some help from advisors and the NFL Players Association.
Since Jackson doesn’t have an agent, there haven’t been many updates or public comments concerning the status of his return. This silence has given many people space to speculate that he’s holding out for contractual reasons, not because of his injury. However, Jackson recently released a statement on Twitter explaining his injury’s severity. The sprain was much worse than many thought, close to a complete PCL tear. Jackson is a versatile athlete who relies on his legs as much as his arm to compete at the high level he does, so this injury prohibits him from performing the way he is most comfortable.
Now to the part where it’s apparent we don’t really care about player safety. The panel of analysts—which included former superstar quarterback Michael Vick, former all-pro defensive back Charles Woodson, and former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton—all shared their thoughts on Jackson’s injury.
“I don’t like it,” said Payton. “This whole tweet out my injury status… Look I just don’t like it. The team is more important than you.” Then Woodson chimed in: “If this team was 2-15 then I could see him not coming back trying to finish out the season. It just seems we all play this game to try to win a Super Bowl… and if you have a team that’s good enough to get to the playoffs…” He trailed off before pinning Jackson’s motives on the lack of a long-term contract.
Finally, Michael Vick, Jackson’s idol, had probably the harshest criticism for the one-time unanimous NFL MVP. “It’s the playoffs man,” Vick said. “Put a brace on it. Let’s go… I played a whole season on a sprained MCL.” Payton threw one last jab at the very end: “With a lower-body injury, he’s going to be up in the press box; he’s not going to be on the field.”
These comments all seem to suggest that Lamar Jackson is only valuable to the extent that he’s willing to risk his own body. Unfortunately, such comments also indicate that the only time to value an athlete’s whole human life is when they’re lying lifeless on the turf and in need of CPR or an EMT transport to the hospital.
As a former football player, I know it’s ingrained in athletes to keep practicing or playing a game even after witnessing gruesome, body-mutilating injuries. So I also know that’s the perspective from which these former professionals are commenting on Jackson’s injury. But as a believer who tries to take the word of God seriously, what immediately came to mind was that our bodies are sacred temples (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We’re called to use our bodies for God’s glory, which may look different for each one of us. Demanding that athletes (or anyone) sacrifice their bodies for the personal gains of others is thus counterintuitive to the way of Christ.
In other words, it should be voluntary if a player chooses to make that decision. That’s what made Jesus’ sacrifice so invaluable: he chose to sacrifice himself for our sins. Insisting that players sacrifice their bodies for our mere entertainment should therefore not sit well with us.
On Bomani Jones’ The Right Time podcast, he nailed down exactly why we returned to “business as usual” after Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest. Jones perceived that we got back to football so fast because Hamlin’s first words upon waking up in the hospital were, “Did we win?” “Now of course, for football people,” Jones said, “they heard that and was like ‘Hell yeah! That’s what I’m talking about… the game is the most important thing in the world.’”
If the near death of a healthy, grown adult football player couldn’t encourage us to pause and respect the total health and vitality of the whole human experience moving forward, then I don’t know what will. Indeed, a grade 2 PCL sprain can’t stop us from criticizing an athlete for not putting his body on the line and possibly affecting the long-term status of his career.
But what do I know? I’m just a high school coach observing it all from the Coach’s Box.