After enduring months of stultifying debate over a reluctant, divisive and petulant defensive lineman who was paid millions of dollars but showed little or no interest in playing, thoughts naturally turn back to those days when only a handful of professional athletes made not much more than a living wage but participated for the love of the game. It hasn’t been that long ago.
The mistakes made in the hiring and handling of Albert Haynesworth, a 300-pound-plus behemoth, admittedly talented tackle when he wanted to play, are numerous. Not the least of these was his seeming refusal to perform under the letter or spirit of his contract and the club’s failure to perform due diligence on his character before signing him. He will now appeal a suspension without pay despite overwhelming evidence of intransigence.
How important is this? Not very, except to the legion of loyal Washington Redskins fans, particularly the regular ticket holders, who have been cheated and exploited for years now by an owner who obviously wouldn’t know a football from a softball but has made untold millions off them.
What makes this worth discussing is what it says about the state of professionalism in America. Teachers who don’t want to teach. Doctors who don’t want to doctor. It is a metaphor for the excesses in entertainment that keep tens of millions of devoted fans glued to their TV sets. Professional athletes are among our most pampered souls, having been indulged from pre-pubescence by doting parents, coaches and agents who see their talent as an eventual lottery ticket to riches. It is no wonder they develop a sense of entitlement that frequently leads them into terrible practices.
This tarnished system produces far too many Haynesworths in the rarefied atmosphere of collegiate and professional athletics. While it always has existed to some degree, it took on new dimensions with the huge cash flow of television. A very good friend, the late Dr. Kenneth Haggerty, who was an all-star in New York City prep basketball, and later a captain of the Holy Cross basketball team that included Bob Cousy, explained once that he had been recruited by the Boston Celtics but turned them down because the pay was only $3,000 a year. It was a paltry sum, he said, compared with the amount he expected to earn as an oral surgeon. Do you know a dentist today who makes an average NBA player’s pay?
When he signed with the Redskins, Haynesworth’s contract was estimated at more than $100 million if played out. About $41 million was guaranteed, including a $21 million signing bonus, which he already has received. For that amount, he played 20 games and made 70 tackles. To this addled brain, it comes out to more than half a million bucks a tackle. For that amount, he became an utter disruption to new coach Mike Shanahan’s efforts to rebuild what is now a third-rate franchise except in profits. For that amount, he clearly considered himself immune from the same responsibilities as his teammates and his coaches.
It would be wrong to tar with the same brush all those who play some kind of professional team sport. A large number are outstanding men and women who aren’t tainted by the mountains of cash thrust upon them and who take their obligations seriously. Unfortunately, however, too many regard themselves as special.
Who’s to blame? To quote the late, great possum phenomenon, Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.