We seem to have the same argument at least once a year, but at least the cycle of debate is getting shorter.
In 2010, some Yankees fans grumbled at first baseman Mark Teixeira missing games in August for the birth of his child, though the Yankees had given him permission. In 2011, Dallas Observer writer Richie Whitt called Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis’ taking advantage of MLB’s then-new paternity leave and missing a start to be with his wife in delivery “ludicrous” and “weird. Wrong even.” Whitt was roundly criticized by commenters and bloggers (including me), though others agreed with him, to at least some extent.
And so this year: Thursday, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio went on a Chicago radio show to complain that Bears cornerback Charles Tillman could possibly miss Sunday’s game for a poorly timed baby. “You work 16 Sundays and you get paid a lot of money to be available those 16 Sundays,” Florio said on The Score. “… It’s the life you’ve chosen, and the idea that you’re going to bail out on your team when the time comes when this is something that could have been planned around … It’s great to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m taking this Sunday off,’ even though you only work 16 of them. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of sympathy among football fans.”
He continued: “There may be some in the media who feel like it’s not politically correct to say what everyone is thinking deep down, which is, ‘Hey man … These are important events. There’s a lot that rides on this. … If your wife has a baby on a Saturday or Sunday, well, next time it’s time to have a baby, make sure you have it between January and July.”
He also referred to sex as “nine-month family expansion activities.’”
In any case, it turned out that not everyone was thinking this, not by a longshot, and the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. It took Florio less than 24 hours to change his mind. Admittedly, the mea culpa was grudging: “Teams should support whatever the player decides to do, even if … it’s obvious to team management that the player gave no thought whatsoever to even trying to time the pregnancy so that it would end during the offseason.”
Imagine that! Just sleeping with your wife without consulting the football schedule first or even asking a sportswriter for his opinion! Some people.
Football games are, indeed, “important events.” But bringing a new life into the world is kind of a big deal as well, I’ve heard, if less lucrative. Police officers, firefighter, ER staff, CEOs, lawyers, judges, train conductors -- all are generally expected to take a day when their children are born. Even in the military an effort is made, when possible, to get soldiers home for childbirth. And despite all the tough militarized language flying around football stadiums, players are not comparable to soldiers.
Florio’s opinion is getting less popular all to the time, and in 10 years, maybe five, no one much will be talking about this anymore. Still, it’s a fascinating argument. What’s interesting to me is not whether or not players should be able to take off for childbirth -- the answer, for me, is a very clear yes, but anyway the battle has already been won. What’s interesting is why anyone would argue against it in the first place. What is it that makes people feel that playing a game for their entertainment should necessarily trump a player’s presence at one of life’s most significant events?
Aside from expectations that come with high salaries, it comes down to this: There is nothing more off-putting, as a fan, than feeling as if players don’t care about the outcome of games as much as you do. This is why, when I was just starting to get into sports, I liked Paul O’Neill so much (aside from the curly mullet, obviously). Maybe it was silly to care about these games, but look at him! He cares WAY more! This is also why fans want to see players in a slump at least seem upset. It’s why Mets fans will never forgive Tom Glavine for refusing to say he was “devastated” after he blew the last game of the 2007 season (that word was for more vital things, he said, accurately but infuriatingly). It’s why people got angry when Alex Rodriguez spent playoff losses allegedly flirting with fans in the seats. Fans care about these games so much, and if it feels as though a player doesn’t -- accurately or not -- well, it’s hard not to feel a bit embarrassed, and that makes people angry.
It’s certainly true that players, in exchange for their salary and opportunity at one of a very few glorified positions, owe us something, as well as their teams, above and beyond what we expect from the average office or retail worker. But they do not owe us this much. They get paid so highly because so few people can do what they do, and because they bring their employers giant profits. That doesn’t mean they forfeit the right to their private lives.
There is a school of thought that thinks, well, maybe it’s cool for a baseball player during the regular season, but what about the playoffs? What about a football player, who gets only 16 games? And the big one, inevitably: WHAT IF IT’S DURING THE SUPER BOWL?!?!?!?
Well, what if it is? I realize the Super Bowl is very nearly a national religious holiday, but it is, in fact, still a football game, and the world and the NFL would keep turning just fine if a player missed it (yes, even the quarterback). I don’t want to say “who cares” because lots of people care, and they are not wrong to. It would be a big, big deal, missing the Super Bowl. It would mean being absent on likely the most important day of your career. But childbirth is a big deal too. That would be one hell of a choice, but it’s not one that fans (or, certainly, sportswriters) should get to make for anyone else.
Here’s hoping that when someone spouts off on this subject next year, it takes them even less time to change their mind. And that in 2014, we can skip this conversation altogether.