The singer not the song: ‘The NFL Honors’ and the limits of talent

 Eric Berry. Photograph by Jeffrey Beall

Eric Berry. Photograph by Jeffrey Beall

“The NFL Honors,” host Conan O’Brien said, would be like the Academy Awards if the Academy Awards honored black people.


Actually, Commissioner Roger Goodell should broadcast “The NFL Honors” every day, for it shows men of grace, humility and compassion – the qualities too often eclipsed by the tabloid headlines. On the program Saturday, Feb. 6, we heard a lot about family and living your dream and exhorting others to do the same.

Eric Berry, a Kansas City Chief safety who overcame Hodgkins’ disease to become the Comeback Player of the Year, didn’t mince words when he described the lonely nights, his father shaving his head in solidarity with his hair loss, his mother comforting him through the vomiting. He must’ve used the word “love” about 25 times in telling people to follow their passions. No one has the right to say that more than a man who has looked death in the face.

“God put me on this earth for a purpose bigger than (playing football),” said Anquan Boldin, the San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver who was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. And that is to serve others, particularly those who have no voice.

It was a night to think of someone or something beyond yourself. “I’m just the other Rodgers,” said Green Bay Packer Richard Rodgers, deferring to teammate Aaron Rodgers, the other half of the winning duo behind the Bridgestone Play of the Year (Aaron’s Hail Mary to Richard against the Detroit Lions).

Even Houston Texan J.J. Watt, saying “screw you” to doubters in winning his third Defensive Player of the Year Award, did so good-naturedly.

And yet, the very presence of these players, who talked about the NFL family, was a reminder that the family doesn’t always take care of their own. In “Roger Goodell’s Unstoppable Football Machine” – Mark Leibovich’s story for the Feb. 7 New York Times Magazine – former player-turned-writer Nate Jackson observes:

“To me, the (NFL) Shield was my loss of identity within a system. It was the suggestion that it was not about me. I was prepared to die to make the play. But the reason football is so dangerous is that the men making the decisions are not the ones getting hit.”

It’s an observation I elaborate on in my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding.” Football is war as theater, in which old men send young men to die. But football is also the ultimate workplace, and, in the workplace, the talent never has the power. The power resides with whoever signs the paycheck.

When I was a young reporter covering NFL labor disputes, the players would always say, “We are the game.”

When Todd Gurley – running back of the St. Louis (soon to be again Los Angeles) Rams – was named the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year at “The NFL Honors,” he gave a shout-out to the St. Louis fans, noting that the players have nothing to do with the move.