Being a football player must really suck. Besides the whole "fear of psyche-splintering brain injury that will be denied by your employer even as they stack stacks from its glorification" thing, probably the main reason why Not Being A Football Player makes for a solid career choice is you'll never have to hear orange-hued ciphers for American cruelty drone on about your "character issues" like some stern khaki dad plucked from a Men's Rights sub-Reddit. Nothing in that last sentence sounds fun.
Arizona Cardinals rookie Tyrann Mathieu is intimately familiar with how this works. After all, there are two things he's known for. The first is that he's dumb good at football, which… have you seen the highlights, dude? The second is that he's a card-carrying member of the Fraternal Brotherhood of Character Issues Union. The BAD HONEY BADGER, BAD narrative kicked off when he was dismissed from the LSU football team for multiple failed drug tests, which is fair enough, at least in theory. The theory falls apart the second one takes a moment to consider Mathieu's lot in life with something the culture of football despises -- sympathy.
Here's a broad statement no one seems willing to make: Tyrann Mathieu does not have character issues. If anything, it's awe-inspiring how much he's overcome while getting chewed up by a football culture that regards self-care and mental health as code words for weakness. The true extent of what he's overcome is impossible for anyone but him to grasp, but what we do know about Mathieu's life story reads like a definitive compendium of negative outcome indicators.
Example: Mathieu was two when his father was sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, go through the juvenile justice system, and end up in prison as adults. These are cumulative effects that are heightened by many of Mathieu's childhood traumas, including an absent mother, the death of his grandfather, and his adoptive family's displacement post-Hurricane Katrina. And that doesn't even cover everything we know about Mathieu, never mind what we don't know.
The point is that the facts of Mathieu's childhood are not just sad, they have a statistically tangible impact on his chances of becoming a successful adult. That he has managed to reach the NFL -- you know, the pinnacle of his profession -- despite these obstacles is a testament to his supposedly suspect character. Consider again that he managed this while being psychoanalyzed in public by bloviating bile-bags and it starts reading like an overheated bootstraps fable.
That version of the story is great and wonderful and other nice words, but it's gone unwritten because the second the camera zooms out on Mathieu, the focus shifts to the people desperately avoiding it. It's no secret that football, like nearly all sports, heavily recruits kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. The issue is to what extent the people calling the plays and cashing the checks are aware of the issues this poses.
Ask most any "amateur" football coach and the story goes that through THE GAME these kids learn important lessons about teamwork and discipline and Bald Eagles and whatever other facile nonsense helps them sleep on beds paid for by unpaid labor. The idea that a game is a suitable substitute for mental health care, or even basic human compassion, is as ugly as it is self-serving.
When Mathieu was dismissed from LSU, he went through rehab -- for marijuana mind you -- and, well, problem solved. Two weeks of drug rehab and two weeks of counseling and therapy -- paid for by his real family rather than his football family of course -- and we're to believe a novel's worth of trauma has been bleached away. It's something, but unlike a torn ACL, rehabbing your mental health is not something that operates on the strict timelines of football.
Basically, Mathieu lucked out. His particular set of traumas playing out in public somehow hasn't swallowed him whole. In that sense, it's far easier to sympathize with Mathieu's story of transcendence than the players who fail to live up to such impossible standards. Aaron Hernandez -- you know, the all-universe tight end under investigation for multiple gangland style murders -- is just the latest case of what happens when players fall apart as the sport twiddles its thumbs and hums a soothing tune.
Most have already decided that Hernandez is some inhuman monster because doing so excuses one from figuring out how a lovable teenage goofball turned into a PCP-addicted block of paranoid muscle. The already ubiquitous Rolling Stone feature on Hernandez makes clear that football, while not truly culpable, certainly didn't help.
When a 16-year-old Hernandez suddenly lost his father while his mother shacked up with an abusive drug dealer, no one making money off his prodigious talents did much of anything to help a kid dealing with unimaginable loads of grief and anger. While playing for Florida, Bible study and Tim Tebow life coaching sessions were the supposed solution. While playing for New England, authoritarian threats were the default response to a young man in the vice grips of paranoia and addiction. None of it excuses what Hernandez is alleged to have done, but it does provide a context that proves we're not dealing with some born sociopath gleefully playing out the lyrics of a Gunplay album.
This narrative plays out in most every sport, but football's grim militarism and resulting disregard for the grunts ups the queasy factor by orders of magnitude. Had Mathieu's imagined character issues ruined his football career, the perceived tragedy would have been that football failed to extract maximum value from its minor investment in him. As for what would have become of Mathieu, who cares? None of the coaches or administrators who cashed checks off his work ever cared about him in the first place. To them, someone like Mathieu is as human as a stock option. The same goes for Hernandez, the only difference is their current valuations.
It will obviously be a long time before football's culture evolves to the point that players are regarded as something more than annoyingly human investments. The billions of dollars floating around the various levels of the sport effectively insulate it from changing anything about the way those billions of dollars are acquired. However, that doesn't mean you have to go along with it. You can start by ignoring the orange TV man; he has serious character issues.
Tomas Rios is a freelance NYC-based writer who has covered MMA for The Classical, Deadspin, The Pacific Standard and Slate. You can find him @TheTomasRios.