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‘Dare to be different’: Thomas Davis challenges NFL

  Arizona Cardinals’ wide receiver Larry Sullivan, seen here at the Child Development Center on Incirlik Air Base in Turkey in 2006, won the NFL’s new Art Rooney Award for sportsmanship.   Photograph by Senior Airman Larry Reid Jr.

Arizona Cardinals’ wide receiver Larry Sullivan, seen here at the Child Development Center on Incirlik Air Base in Turkey in 2006, won the NFL’s new Art Rooney Award for sportsmanship. Photograph by Senior Airman Larry Reid Jr.

The night before the Super Bowl is traditionally reserved for the “NFL Honors,” a combination of the Academy Awards and a glorified high school assembly program.

It’s easy to make fun of the show. The clothes. You would think with all that money, these guys would have their suits custom-made. But no, instead we get jackets that are definitely too tight across generous butts and suits that might be appropriate for a Rotary Club meeting but not for a televised awards show. Among the exceptions – the legendary running back Emmitt Smith, looking snazzy in a purple suit, and San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick, James Bond-sleek in a tux. Perhaps he could offer some fashion tips to Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt. J.J., the 1970s called: They want that plaid jacket back.

Then there was the actress who kept pronouncing “OFfense” “offense.” And the less-than-poker faces. Football players aren’t actors. They don’t hide their disappointment when they lose an award. Even the poised Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers looked less than pleased when Seth Meyers, the show’s somewhat tame host, poked fun at the Packers’ collapse against the Seattle Seahawks in the N.F.C. Championship game.

Yet as the show went on, it became clear that in a year of inflated egos and deflated footballs – one that began with a horrific act of violence and ended with a farcical equipment malfunction – there is much to celebrate in the NFL. The acceptance speech by Arizona Cardinal Larry Sullivan was respectful of teammate and opponent alike, as befits someone who had just been awarded the first Art Rooney Award for sportsmanship.  

But there was more. It was classy of Rodgers, in accepting his MVP award from last year’s winner, Peyton Manning, to take a moment to suggest that Manning stick around for another season. The speech of the night, though, belonged to Carolina Panthers’ linebacker Thomas Davis, who received the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his humanitarian work with underprivileged youngsters. Tears streaming down his face, Davis exhorted his NFL brethren: "Let's take charge. Dare to be different. We are a village. Let's step up and be a village of guys that make a difference. Let's change this world. Let's give the media something positive to talk about instead of always bashing our league.”

It was the unacknowledged 800-pound gorilla in Phoenix’s Symphony Hall, the league’s domestic violence problem. Davis reminded his NFL brothers that they can be more than that.