Commentary

What Dez Bryant can teach the NFLPA

Is his lack of concern about tradition emblematic of the league's respect for its past?

Originally Published: July 30, 2010
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

It isn't unusual for me to go two, sometimes three days without watering my lawn. And although I would like a lush green blanket of grass rolled out in front of my door, I'm apparently not willing to do the things necessary to make that happen. Alas, the old adage holds true: You reap what you sow.

Sooner or later, what you send out to the world will find its way back to you, whether it's lawn care or any other aspect of life.

So when the Dez Bryant/Roy Williams/rookie-carry-my-pads flap broke out and those connected to the game began to comment on Bryant's supposed transgression, I couldn't help but think of that same principle: You reap what you sow. My colleague Tim Keown pointed out earlier this week, for example, that Bryant's stand as a rookie this year will make it difficult for him to expect his own pads to be carried next season and beyond, when he's a veteran.

Brian DeMarco
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastEx-player Brian DeMarco (Jaguars and Bengals) told a 2008 news conference that he must walk with a cane and is unable to get in and out of a chair without assistance because of a spinal injury.

But there's a different way to look at it, too. Why should established players expect a rookie to pay respect to the veterans when the NFL's current players aren't doing the same for their elders, the ones who helped build the league? I'm not talking about carrying some old, funky shoulder pads. I'm talking about looking after the men on whose backs the league currently rests. In March, the NFL and NFLPA got into another public spat about retired players' benefits. This time, they were bickering over which side is really sincere about improving the pension plan and health care as the new CBA is being discussed.

Football is the only major professional sport in which severe injuries are routine, in which paralysis is a possible outcome and death a looming threat. The fraternity of football players knows and accepts the risks on a level that only another member of the fraternity can fully appreciate. The men who played this game 20, 30, 40 years ago did so without the benefits science provides today, such as understanding of the long-term impact of concussions. We sometimes hear stories about former players who've fallen on hard times -- destitute, homeless -- and their problems don't always stem from mismanagement of funds. Sometimes, it's the byproduct of a life handcuffed by mental illness that we are just now beginning to acknowledge could be connected to repeated blows to the head from playing football.

Obviously, there is a physical price to pay for play, too. The recent passing of Jack Tatum, and his connection to Darryl Stingley, are reminders of the game's dangers.

Spinal injuries.

Joint replacement.

Pain.

The men who helped build this game did so before the league began enjoying the windfall of its billion-dollar broadcasting deals. Some are unable to work another job because of football and are dependent on their fraternity brothers for survival. So when I hear about the NFLPA being sued by former players for cutting them out of the millions that came from their gaming relationship with EA Sports, I just get so disappointed.

The NFLPA can't control what the league does. The owners are going to try to hold on to as much money as they possibly can. To me, getting them to contribute more to the pension fund and to the health care of retired athletes is a separate issue.

But the current players, the fraternity brothers, the men who understand the risks their forefathers took to get the game to this point, should not need a judge to tell them to share the spoils. They should want to pay respect to the veterans who came before them. They should want to carry their pads.

I understand the concern from some that retired players' claims might be a bottomless pit. I mean, how long do you keep opening your checkbook to help someone who might never be satisfied? But I do not believe the NFLPA is anywhere near answering that question; and in fact, in many ways, the players' association has been just as tight-fisted with its financial assistance to the old guard as it is accusing the owners of being with the union.

The difference is that the owners and their representation were never part of the fraternity of players. They don't fully appreciate what it takes to be part of that group. The NFLPA doesn't have that excuse. It should feel morally obligated to take care of its own.

Bryant said he didn't know about tradition in the Cowboys camp. Could it be that he's the harvest brought forth from years of sowing self-interest?

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine