By John Boyle Herald Columnist
Four weeks into the 2013 season, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett was taken off the field strapped to a backboard and transported to a Houston hospital with a neck injury that fortunately ended up not being serious.
Five months later, plenty of Seahawks fans were upset with Bennett when he decided to get a feel for his value in free agency rather than re-sign with Seattle before players were allowed to talk with other teams beginning Saturday.
In the NFL, the distance between riches and catastrophe can frighteningly slim. That’s worth remembering as players and teams make big decisions this week now that free agency has kicked off.
After feeling things out over the weekend, Bennett ultimately decided to stay in Seattle. But what if he hadn’t? How would you have reacted if Bennett had signed with, say, the Chicago Bears when the new league year began Tuesday afternoon?
How will you react if Golden Tate, who reportedly is heading to Detroit for a visit, signs with the Lions or someone else for more money than the Seahawks are offering?
Because if you’re getting angry with athletes who decided to get every dollar possible, if you think a player is greedy for choosing free agency over loyalty, please go back and re-read the first sentence of this column.
Bennett’s career could have ended on the Reliant Stadium turf that Sunday afternoon. His, or Tate’s, or any other player’s career could end in a preseason game next August. Careers are short and the future is uncertain in every professional sport, but the risks are exceptionally high in football.
And not only are injuries common and careers short in the NFL, contracts aren’t guaranteed, so teams are quick to release players as soon as they decide that person isn’t worth paying anymore. Red Bryant was the captain of a Super Bowl-winning defense, an inspirational leader on the field and in the locker room, but he was set to make a lot of money in 2014, so the Seahawks decided he wasn’t worth keeping around anymore. Julius Peppers and DeMarcus Ware are two of the most productive pass rushers of their era, yet both were released in cost-cutting moves Tuesday.
Yet fans clamor that Bennett or Tate should be loyal rather than get what they’re worth on the open market?
As fullback Michael Robinson put it after re-signing with the Seahawks mid-season having been cut before the season started, “If you think there’s loyalty in this game, that’s your fault. It’s business. You’ve got to understand that.”
And yes, in the case of players like Bennett and Tate, we are talking about millions and millions of dollars, but don’t pretend like there isn’t a difference between $6 million and $8 million, especially in a career that, if you’re lucky, ends in your early 30s. Most players aren’t lucky enough to see the type of payday Bennett had Monday, or that Tate will get soon, but why should those who do reach that point in their career turn down the chance to cash in when the team that employs them isn’t about to show the same loyalty when it’s time to make those “difficult decisions” coaches and general managers so often reference in the offseason?
Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin addressed this topic while appearing on Q13 Fox Sunday, noting: “Is it truly greedy to want to get the most out of all the hard work you put into your craft? Is it that hard to fathom?”
It shouldn’t be, but for some it’s too easy to make the “how much money is enough?” argument. And for some players, taking a little less money is the right choice, especially if that player is signing his second big multi-year deal, something few non-quarterbacks get to do.
For plenty of players, the respect factor that comes with that big money is almost as important as the money itself. Let’s assume you’re really good at your particular job, and you’re making enough money to live comfortably, but then one day you discover that a co-worker, who isn’t as good at or as dedicated to that job, is making twice as much as you. Would you still be OK with your salary just because you make “enough” money even though your employer is rewarding a less-productive co-worker more than you?
As it turns out, Bennett could have made a little more in Chicago, but he felt more comfortable in Seattle and liked the idea of chasing another title. Tate may end up making the same decision, or he may take top dollar somewhere else.
If Tate does take the money and run, or if another big-name free agent does so down the road, it’s OK to be bummed that your favorite team is losing a good player. After all, fans have a bond with teams that in a lot of ways is stronger than that of the players who usually have no geographical ties or childhood loyalties connecting them to their team. But it’s not OK to label that player selfish or greedy or a traitor.
Any NFL athlete will tell you he’s fortunate to be making a living playing a game he loves. He’ll also tell you that he knows that career can end tomorrow, and that the checks can stop arriving as soon as his team decides he’s not worth keeping.
In a sport where careers can end in an instant, and where they rarely end on a player’s terms, there is nothing wrong with a player getting as much as he can get, wherever he can get it.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.