THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
In theory, nobody should ever lose their job due to injury, especially if it was not their fault (or malicious). Hey, that's why we have insurance companies, right? (Actually, don't get me started on insurance companies.)
However, in the world of sports, where performance and victory are what define success outside of the dollar and the profit, injury puts people in very tough positions due to the nature of being unable to wait for success.
Think about it. If a team's star player gets injured and is out for the remainder of the season, the season doesn't get canceled. The team still has to play, and it's up to everyone else on the team to step up and perform in the absence of the star. It may also be incumbent upon the ownership or management of the team to then bring in players to patch up the proverbial hole left by the injured star. Regardless, the fan base still expects to win; the response to an injury is never, "Well, wait till next year." It's always, "What do we need to do to win now?"
So when quarterback Tony Romo went down with a major back injury during preseason, the Dallas Cowboys had no choice but to turn to rookie Dak Prescott for the first eight weeks of the season, which was the timetable of when Romo would probably return to playing action. The question was, however, if Romo would get his job back upon his return. Would Prescott's performance be enough to influence that decision?
The answer was yes. Prescott is the starter going forward.
There are a few too many instances in history where injury caused a major star to lose his job (and for a new star to be born). You might think of the Wally Pipp story that caused Lou Gehrig to be born, but it turns out that particular incident was just a myth. A more recent incident would be Drew Bledsoe and how his season-ending injury spawned the legacy of a man I dislike as much as Newman despises Keith Hernandez: Tom Brady.
Ironically enough, Bledsoe was on the other end of Tony Romo's career as well. Bledsoe was the starting quarterback for Dallas when his poor performance caused Romo to take over the offense and led the team to the playoffs and beyond. Now, Romo has to now adjust to the role of the elder statesman and do the same thing.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Romo took the high road and endorsed Prescott as the starter going forward. However, some in the media called Romo too dramatic, stating the tone of his speech was akin to his retirement and asked Romo to stop the act. As someone who has been in the shoes of both Tony Romo and Drew Bledsoe, I get it.
When I was a senior in high school, I was primed to lead my varsity baseball team that year. We probably were not going to have a stellar season, but we were going to have a lot of fun. It was the culmination of my group of friends' experience playing the sport together, and we were determined to go out on top, albeit emotionally. So when a head cold knocked me down for the count the week after the tryouts, I didn't think much of it.
The result? Well, after a slew of other instances of poor judgment by our second-year coach resulting in the benching of many of our seniors due to his goal of "rebuilding for the future," I found myself on the bench that season next to many of my friends. The only quantum of solace was that I was the only one of our graduating class to go on to still play Division I baseball, so I had the last laugh, even if just for my own psyche.
I tried very hard to play through that cold, but after one day of intense drills, I knew it was time to stop when I couldn't breathe. I found myself on the trainer's table just asking if I could rest until enough oxygen could get through my system. I ended up needing a few more days off (and at least one of those days was spent home from school due to the severity of the symptoms). So I was shocked the following week during scrimmages when, after a few games of not starting due to what I thought was allowing me to ease back into things after a virus, I was still on the bench (or DHing at best). I still don't know if I've ever really forgiven that coach.
When a competitive athlete loses the opportunity to compete at the highest level possible due to anything other than his or her own decision not to compete, the fight in that athlete gets activated even more. The drive to prove people wrong is fueled by a silent rage to remain at the pinnacle of successful performance. It's the equivalent to telling a teenager not to do something: it only makes him or her want to do it more.
So when Tony Romo spoke with a tone of drama, I understood. It's like breaking up with someone, but you have to continue to see that person every day at work, and because you're so invested in the company, you force yourself to cope with the awkwardness for the better of the overall good. (Although, in that example, one might ask why you're dating someone from work in the first place...)
The difference in these examples, however, is the path that each individual has to continue to form his or her own destiny. When you're in high school and you're still learning about life and trying to experience things that will help shape you as you approach adulthood, you don't have the same amount of control over situations. It begs the question about what is truly important: the better of the team? The lessons learned from such a tragedy? Or the experience a kid might have on what could be his final chance to play baseball? It's not like I could then choose to go play for another high school team (especially when the season is literally two months long and graduation is about a month after that).
When you're a professional, the stakes are different because the opportunities are different. If you lose your job unfairly, you could get traded or sign with another team in free agency. You have the opportunity to move to a different city and restart. You also have the money and financial security to make these decisions. If I was making millions of dollars sitting on the bench, I might consider that a good gig. But that doesn't happen at seventeen years old.
If you take out the competitive drive, it's probably easy for Tony Romo to accept the situation for the time being. He is still getting paid the same amount of money now to literally not play. Further, if Dak Prescott gets injured or stops performing, Romo is there to step in again. The dollar can speak volumes to people, contrary to popular belief. And in the worst case, Tony Romo can probably get a job somewhere else next year if he wants to start. His career is certainly not over.
Now, maybe Romo has another reason to be somewhat somber. Perhaps Romo was so invested in the Dallas Cowboys that the fact that he will probably need to move on to another team to continue to play tugs at his heartstrings. That's admirable; that's putting the team first, yet also recognizing your own self-respect without being selfish. Another reason could be Romo's realization that he is on the back end of his career; he's certainly no spring chicken by comparison, and with the average NFL career being so short, he could see this as a wake-up call to his own mortality. All of these reasons are valid, and if they are the reasons why Romo was so somber during his press conference, then we still do not have evidence to rip him.
This issue has become so gray because of the element of human emotion mixed into the competitive nature and result-oriented demand in sports. On paper, we want to see success. We want the laundry for which we root to win. And we put such a focus on the success of the team as being the greatest goal (and it technically is) that we choose to neglect the individual's success, and rightly so. But how is it fair that the fans, the media, and the world continue to focus on the forward progress of the Dallas Cowboys when Tony Romo is probably sitting at his locker with a broken heart? Would Romo "snap out of it" if someone showed him a picture of all the millions of dollars he has earned, just sitting in a vault waiting for him to dive into it like he was Scrooge McDuck from DuckTales?
Perhaps we need to wait until next year to really judge this incident. Let's see if Dak Prescott keeps his job. Let's see if Tony Romo signs somewhere else. Until then, ease up on Tony.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.