Football season came to an uninspiring conclusion with last night’s Super Bowl. Fans are no doubt upset by the blowout score. Meanwhile, critics of the game are fuming over the sexist ads, corporate subsidies and shoddy attempts at sustainability — not to mention football’s ongoing issues with racism and mental health. But all is not bad in America’s most popular sport. In fact, this season several players rose above the negativity to show another side to a game that is often derided as brutal and violent.
Seattle Superhawks player Richard Sherman drew a storm of controversy after an NFC championship game, when he talked smack on an opposing team’s player. The commentary — which came in the heat of an emotional victory and following a physical altercation invoked by the opposing player — was immediately seized upon by a legion of football fans who claim to be the arbiters of sportsmanship. They called Sherman a thug and the media ran with it. But Sherman, a Stanford graduate and his high school’s salutatorian, penned a brilliant response for Sports Illustrated, in which he regretted going after his opponent like that. More importantly, he called out the real meaning behind the word thug, saying “It seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.” This push-back has since ignited a much-needed conversation about the unfair expectations and racism black athletes continue to face in sports today.
Former Denver Bronco player John Moffit announced his retirement in November, saying he was unhappy with the game and that “It’s really madness to risk your body, risk your well-being and risk your happiness for money.” As it turns out, Moffit had spent the past couple years studying the works of Noam Chomsky and the Dalai Lama, which contributed to a change in his worldview. He left behind a multimillion dollar contract, but hopes to get into radio and podcasts, where he plans to share his opinions on philosophy and politics.
Former Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo has drawn considerable flack for his outspoken advocacy of same-sex marriage. In 2012, Maryland State Delegate Emmet C. Burns, Jr. demanded that the Ravens “take the necessary action … to inhibit such expressions from your employee.” Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe wrote an angry response to Burns in support of Ayanbadejo. The two players then filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court last February to express their support for the challenge of California’s Proposition 8. Then, in January, Kluwe claimed that he was released by the Vikings for his continued support of same-sex marriage. Although the team denied it, Kluwe said coaches repeatedly berated him for his stance and continued to make homophobic remarks.
Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin has been called football’s “bike-riding, socially conscious, Animal Collective–loving hipster.” In other words, according to Grantland, he is “the NFL’s modern man.” By insisting he’s not trying to save the world and instead just doing the right thing, he may not be as outspoken as others on this list. But Barwin nevertheless touts his beliefs in green living, energy conservation and marriage equality with pride. And that’s no easy thing to do in a game where individuality is frowned upon. But if he’s to be seen as a new breed of football player, perhaps that’s a good sign for football. The kind of change that the game needs could very well be coming from the players themselves.