The National Football League – and indeed, the sport of football itself – is under a lot of fire lately, with scrutiny over damaging concussions, videos of domestic violence, and even charges that the game encourages homophobia and teaches children misogyny. But there is a positive, compassionate side of the league that tends to get lost among the volleys of criticism.
When Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive tackle Devon Still, for example, learned in June that his beautiful 4-year-old daughter Leah had Stage 4 pediatric cancer, “I just broke down in tears and couldn’t stop crying. It’s like my whole world turned upside down.” Still wasn’t able to give the team 100% after that, and eventually he was cut from the squad.
But the Bengals then offered him a slot on their practice squad, providing him with a paycheck, health insurance, and more time to spend with Leah. “They could have just washed their hands of me and said that they didn’t care what I was goin’ through off the field,” Devon Still said. But they didn’t; they took the high road. The Bengals organization showed real class and compassion.
Another Devon, safety Devon Walker from Tulane University in New Orleans, was paralyzed from the neck down after a collision during a 2012 game against the University of Tulsa. He is bound to a wheelchair and needs a ventilator to help him breathe.
Nevertheless, Tulane Coach Curtis Johnson said that Walker was a big part of the team’s success the following year: its first winning season and bowl game since 2002. “I didn’t have to do any pregame speeches at home because he did them all,” Johnson said. “And he policed the locker room. He policed those guys. He was around all the time. This kid deserves it all. He’s very inspirational.”
Walker, who also went on to become the recipient of the 2013 Disney Spirit Award, an honor given annually by Disney Sports to college football’s most inspirational figure, became an unofficial member of the New Orleans Saints family as well. Then at the end of May, just hours before graduating from college, the Saints surprised Walker by signing him to an official contract. “I’m proud to be up here with him, and I’m super proud of his recovery and the way he’s handled this and the way he’s approached this,” said Coach Sean Payton. “Obviously he’s been an inspiration to our region, to our community, New Orleans, the Tulane family, and it’s carried over to us on the Saints.”
“To me, this is almost like one of my dreams come true,” said Devon Walker. “I’ve been a Saint since before I was walking. Just to be a part of this team, just to be around the players is more than I could have hoped.”
Those are just two highlights of the NFL’s more uplifting side. The league also offers a support program called NFL Player Engagement, whose mission is “to optimize and revolutionize the personal and professional growth of football players through continuous guidance and support before, during and beyond their NFL experience.” It “prepares and supports players with matters such as physical and mental health, family safety, lifestyle and transition into their post-NFL life.” Its goal is “to serve and assist as a resource for parents, coaches and athletes in using football as a catalyst to build and develop life skills for success.” One of the related programs is All Pro Dad, which offers resources for fatherhood and aims “to interlock the hearts of the fathers with their children.”
As for causes outside the league, the NFL is widely known as a very charitable organization. This is to say nothing of the caring and philanthropic acts of countless individual players throughout the NFL, past and present, who offer their time and celebrity to various causes.
“We are losing the compassionate side of sports,” former San Francisco 49ers star Ronnie Lott worried back in 1986. In the high-testosterone, hard-hitting world of professional football, that is a legitimate concern. But I think that today, despite the very public issues currently plaguing the National Football League, there is plenty of evidence that football’s compassionate side is more active than ever.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 9/10/14)