Friday, December 03, 2004

Ricky Don't Lose That Number

The ongoing clamor over Ricky Williams's (final?) decision to stay retired from the NFL is somewhat irritating, but not surprising. Most sports observers simply cannot grasp why someone with Williams's talent would walk away in his prime. Some, like Jim Rome, blame Williams's love of the weed, suggesting that the guy's too fried or too addicted to make a rational decision. To talkers like Rome, it's either the pigskin or the bong (being able to consider multiple concepts at once is box-office poison for bigtime sports radio). To Williams, being free from NFL drug testing is only part of the reason why he quit. He's said that he's tired of being smashed by 300 lb. linemen some 30 times every Sunday, that he no longer wants to be viewed as a commodity by the bottom-line league. In his now-defunct online journal (extended portions of which you can find here), Williams gave us a glimpse inside The Machine:

"The marketing lady from the NFL called and asked if I wanted to do it [a VISA commercial in which the two other participants would be making three times as much money]... Me, thinking I was in the top echelon of players in the NFL... the marketing lady explained that I wasn't there yet. We got into an argument about the top 3 selling jerseys in the NFL I started to realize that I don't ever want to be there if that means acting the way she wants me to, or anyone else wants me to. If I get there the way I want, being myself, then I can be proud of it, but I'm not going to be proud of it if I get there behaving the way someone else thinks I should."

"Whenever I do a commercial, the director always tries to get me to act tough and talk tough. If you haven't heard me talk, I have a soft voice. I shouldn't have to act tough, I play football. I AM tough."

I'd say -- Williams rushed for 4470 yards over three seasons, and he went about his business without succumbing to the WWF posturing that's expected from NFL superstars like Terrell Owens and Ray Lewis, posturing that's celebrated and promoted by league marketers and emulated by young athletes. Compared to these and other players, Williams was a Shaolin priest. And unlike most sports superstars, whose identities are completely wound up with the games they play, Williams finally said that he couldn't find any answers in football, and that he needed to leave in order to find his life's meaning.

Oh, how he was heckled for that line! In America, esp in sports, The Meaning Of Life is Get Rich, Be Famous, and Shout To The Sky About Your Greatness. Humility, reflection and meditation are for losers, and since Williams desires a more subdued, spiritual life, he's no longer of any use to serious sports fans.

For the moment, Williams's saga is being drowned out by the revelations that baseball's Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds (surprise!) used steroids to enhance their mega-performances over the years. There'll be much tsk-tsking on this front, primarily towards Bonds, who's angrily denied the obvious for some time. But note the difference: steroids have become, if not an accepted part of sports, then certainly an expected one. Any agent that makes batters swing faster with power and linemen hit harder will ultimately be tolerated by fans who desire swifter, more violent spectacles. This in turn will tempt the leagues to turn a blind eye to most infractions, knowing that a major crackdown will cut into profits. For every Bonds and Giambi outed, you know there are countless others secretly juicing, from high school on up.

Smoking weed, on the other hand, merely helps you see through the bullshit and lies that are thrown at you hourly. Laid-back, dreadlocked rastas and hippies do nothing to feed fan hunger for ultra-brutality and bone-snapping action. This is why Ricky Williams is receiving the opprobrium he is. As the late, great Bill Hicks put it, "They lie about marijuana. Tell you pot-smoking makes you unmotivated. Lie! When you're high, you can do everything you normally do, just as well. You just realize that it's not worth the fucking effort. There is a difference."