By John Boyle
NFL coaches and executives like to say that they dread phone calls this time of year. Between the end of minicamps and organized team activities and the start of training camp, player are on their own for roughly six weeks, free to enjoy some downtime, and occasionally, free to get into trouble.
As far as I know, however, no coach or GM has ever gotten a call from a player reporting that he has been gored by a bull. Yet that just might have been a fear for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider last week, because left tackle Russell Okung as well as his agent Peter Schaffer were in Pamplona, Spain last week to take part in the annual running of the bulls.
Came, saw, people were gored, and we conquered! http://t.co/80t7dpskSGAnd apparently the Seahawks knew what Okung was up to during his vacation.
— Russell Okung (@BDR76) July 13, 2013
“Well, they didn’t really like it, but they told me to be safe and they trust me to make the best and right decisions. That’s why they picked me in the first place,” Okung told FOX Sports in a phone interview from Barcelona. “We get caught up in the States, thinking that’s the whole world when it’s really not. There’s so much in this world, it’s amazing. There’s so much life to be lived. I figured why not?
“So I did it and I’m still here to talk about it, sitting in front of this beautiful monument.”
Naturally, some Seahawks fans have expressed their concern that any player, let alone one so important to the team’s future, would participate in such a dangerous activity, but should they be? Professional athletes’ contracts include all sorts of forbidden activities, from riding motorcycles to skiing to playing certain other sports on the side. Okung’s contract apparently does not, however, include a “no running with the bulls” clause, most likely because nobody thought to put that in an NFL contract. Yet if what Okung told Fox Sports is accurate, the Seahawks knew what Okung was planning and did explicitly tell him not to do it, even if they weren’t thrilled with the idea. And perhaps more significantly, Shaffer, a man who stands to make a lot of money off of Okung if the left tackle enjoys a long career—Okung is owed more than $15 million in base salary over the next two years, and is in line for a huge second contract if he continues to play to the level he did last year—apparently felt that what they were doing was safe enough to let one of his top clients partake.
And while running with the bulls isn’t a risk commonly taken by athletes, Okung’s vacation adventure does bring up a reoccurring question when it comes to athletes and their free time: what risks should they be allowed to take? Okung as well as his agent knew darn well that if he had suffered a significant injury last week, it would hurt the Seahawks’ future as well as his potential future earnings, yet he ran anyway. So where do we draw the line between a player living his life and a player taking unnecessary risks? Is it fair to ask athletes to essentially live in protective bubble outside of work in the name of protecting the team? Given what someone like Okung makes, maybe it is.
I’d argue, however, that assuming he was being smart in Pamplona, Okung was within his rights to live a little. Is it so bad that a young man, as Okung puts it, actually understands that, “There’s so much in this world, it’s amazing. There’s so much life to be lived.”
Okung wasn’t out getting drunk and driving, he wasn’t getting into a fight, he wasn’t finding some other way to end up in trouble in the offseason; he was experiencing an event of significant cultural and historical significance. Is it really so bad that an athlete understands that the world is a lot bigger than just his or her sport?
Life itself is a great opportunity. I’m taking it everytime!And unless somebody provides evidence to the contrary, it’s hard to imagine that Okung and Schaffer weren’t doing plenty to minimize their risks. When it comes to the running of the bulls, plenty of people participate without being in much, if any danger.
— Russell Okung (@BDR76) July 16, 2013
To get an insider’s perspective, so to speak, I called a college buddy, Ben Dutzar, who ran with the bulls in 2004.
As Ben explained it, “If you’re in the front of the heard (of people) and take off running, you’ll never see a bull… If you’re with somebody who knows what’s going on, you can do it without getting into any trouble.”
And maybe if you clicked on that link you’ll notice that Ben is quoted saying he fell down with bulls right behind him, but if you knew him in his younger days, you’d know that Ben wasn’t exactly the best at avoiding high-risk situations (In college, he was the co-inventor of a party “sport” called deck jumping, which is exactly what it sounds like).
So yeah, all things being equal, would the Seahawks have preferred it if Okung hadn’t run with the bulls? Probably. But is it fair to tell an athlete he or she can’t have a life outside of their sport, especially if something isn’t prohibited in his contract? I’d say no.