The Tillman Debate

At what point do fans expect too much of professional athletes? Where do fans draw the line of acceptable actions by their favorite players?

Ben Roethlisberger was involved in a sexual assault case in 2008. Although he was never formally charged, this was Roethlisberger’s second sexual assault case in two years. He was later suspended six games by the NFL and was ordered to undergo a league-mandated “professional behavior evaluation”. Most Steeler fans, and even the media to a large degree, forget that these incidents ever happened. The same can be said about Michael Vick. Vick served prison time for running and funding an illegal dog fighting ring. He was named the 2010 Comeback Player of The Year and rewarded  with his second $100 million contract by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Fans tend to forget players mistakes. But what constitutes a mistake? A poor decision by the law’s standards or a poor decisions by the fans standards?

Charles Tillman’s recent announcement that he may miss Sunday nights football game against the Houston Texans  to attend the birth of his child has drawn ire from fans and media alike.

Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio joined a Chicago morning radio show to discuss his stance on Tillman’s decision to miss Sunday’s game. ““This may not not be the most popular position in the world, but I fall into the ‘This is the life we’ve chosen’ category”. There are ways nowadays – there are technologies that you can plan when you’re going to have a baby. There are four fairly important months out of the year when you work 16 Sundays and you get paid a lot of money to be available those 16 Sundays. You try to avoid being in a position where you have to make that decision on Sunday that you’re getting paid a lot of money to be available to play a football game. It’s easy for me to say this because I’ve never been and never will be in this position, but I think you gotta show up and do your job. Guys who are over seas don’t get to fly home if they’ve got a spouse going into labor, and they get paid a heck of a lot less money.”

““It’s the life you’ve chosen, and the idea that you’re going to bail out on your team when the time comes when this is something that could have been planned around when you’re getting paid a heck of a lot of money to be available, when you’re not injured and you’re healthy… I’m just giving that as an example. It’s great to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m taking this Sunday off,’ even though you only work 16 of them. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of sympathy among football fans.”

While Florio has since changed his stance, his initial reaction is one that many fans in Chicago have expressed since hearing the news.

The idea that Tillman should miss the birth of his child shows a fundamental flaw in the way fans view professional athletes responsibility to them. I don’t have children, but from what I understand, the birth of your child is one of the best experiences anyone can have. To ask someone to miss the moment of the birth of their child because you believe that they have some higher calling to their profession is asinine. Nearly every employer in America allows you to miss work to attend the birth of your child. Even the U.S. Military makes exceptions.

I’m sure that if your significant other was having a child, you would be present. What makes Charles Tillman any different? I believe that fans view their circumstances differently because of one thing Florio said, “You work 16 Sundays and you get paid a lot of money to be available those 16 Sundays.” Fans have this engrained mentality that professional football players only work 16 days a year and make millions of dollars. This is a false reality that lends people to demand unrealistic actions and expectations of their favorite athletes or teams.

This issue has been raised before though. Former Oilers offensive line coach Bob Young proclaimed in 1993 that, by attending the birth of his child, tackle David Williams “let the guys down, and he let hundreds of thousands of fans down.” While I’m sure that this was a view held in the minority amongst his peers, it raises the issue of, do fans receive their cues from organizations? In a $9 billion-a-year industry, winning seems to trump all. Winning keeps owners, fans and players happy. It allows people to keep their jobs. But its still only a game. It’s entertainment. It’s not storming the beaches of Normandy.

Will Tillman’s absence affect the outcome of the came? Possibly. Will it affect the outcome of the millions of people’s lives that watch the game Sunday night? No. Will missing the birth of his child affect Charles Tillman’s life? Yes.

The decision is ultimately Tillman’s. Not yours, not mine. Whatever decision he makes, he deserves support. Support from his teammates, his organization and the fans, even if it doesn’t align with their own feelings.

For a society that clamors for stronger presences by fathers in children’s lives, the discontent for Tillman doing the right thing is laughable. The message seems to be, “We need better dads. Just as long as you don’t play for my favorite team on Sunday’s.”


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