The fall of one of sports’ most electric players is partially our fault, too.
Ever notice my tagline? “Commentary on sports and the way we watch them.” Sports are about what the players and teams do on and off the field, but they exist as what we, the fans, make of them. Tim Tebow is an interesting athlete, but we have turned him into a super-celebrity. Interesting to think that you have to live under a rock to not know a guy who has started less than an entire season of games and has a passer rating lower than Manny Pacquiao’s cholesterol. Michael Vick has had a solid career and a prison sentence, which isn’t anything new, but he has become one of the more enigmatic and mythic men in sports. Dante Hall was the coolest cat in the NFL for one season mostly because of this return.
Tyrann Mathieu is one of those rare athletes who quickly rises to prominence and reaches levels of fame even higher than his on-the-field performance would warrant. Yes, his Heisman-nominated season a year ago was terrific, with five forced fumbles (two of which he returned for touchdowns), two interceptions, and two return touchdowns on special teams. Yes, he certainly earned his nickname of the “Honey Badger” with his tenacious play (cue Kevin Harlan: “With no regard for human life!”). By the way, if you haven’t seen the video, watch it when you’re done reading. (Viewer discretion please).
He’s the kind of athlete that people like to watch play, and he has the kind of nickname that gives him a fiery persona and a pronounceable way of referring to him. It was a perfect storm for the beginning of a household name. The problem is he’s a twenty-year-old kid with no shot at starting in the NFL.
We created something, the Honey Badger, that Tyrann Mathieu could never live up to. We put pressure on a kid who made a name for himself by hard work, resilience, and fire to be a superstar. We wanted him to be Patrick Peterson. But he’s not; he’s Tyrann Mathieu. He could never have duplicated last year’s performance this year and he wasn’t going to have much of an NFL career. By the time he was 22, his athletic career would already be on the decline.
How does a young man handle that? How is someone who rockets to the top of sports notability in the space of one college football season supposed to come to terms with playing special teams in the NFL while his old teammate has a terrific career as a returner and cover corner? How do you live up to a nickname that refers to an animal that fights a cobra, gets bit, kills the cobra, eats the cobra, falls asleep from the poison, and then wakes up to tell about it?
Shortly before his latest arrest, Mathieu appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It featured a close up of him alone, with the words, “Endangered: The Perilous Road of the Honey Badger.” The only mention of Tyrann Mathieu was a tiny caption. Many headlines refer to him in a similar way. See the problem? He’s not a honey badger; he’s a young man in a difficult situation.
I can’t say for sure, but I think his problems have been made worse by the attention paid to him. He may have been a drug user anyway, but perhaps if he was regarded as a student athlete with an exciting style of play rather than some football force of nature called the Honey Badger, he wouldn’t have been dismissed from the program.
Kids his age aren’t meant to deal with what he’s had to deal with. I’m as old as Nerlens Noel, and while I’m working on a research paper, he has the expectation to lead the highest profile college basketball team in the nation back to the Final Four. That’s a bit of pressure. Anthony Davis, his predecessor, holds the hopes of a franchise while being compared to Bill Russell. He’s only a year older than I am. Mathieu’s situation makes me think that coverage of college sports needs to start focusing more on teams rather than individual players. Time and again, a player is highly touted after a great game and then criticized for the inevitable poor one. The players are just kids, and having a nickname and appearing on magazines and SportsCenter is a pretty unique and difficult experience. I just want to make it on Grantland.
Is that too much to ask?
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Soli Deo Gloria