He sat on the bench during the waning minutes of the football game, shoulders slumped, expression crestfallen, alone. As the opposing team capitalized on his mistakes–mistakes that would eventually cost his team the game–the television cameras periodically cut to Marion Barber, then to replays of his errors displayed in slow motion beneath the commentators describing in excruciating detail how critical his mistakes were. And there Barber sat.
A few moments earlier, when he had made those mistakes, I had stood yelling at the television (I tend to yell at the television during sporting events, so long as my wife and child aren’t present or are asleep upstairs). I couldn’t believe how idiotic, how stupid, how careless he had been. Now, mind you, I don’t generally root for his team (the Chicago Bears, for those of you who don’t follow football), but I really wanted his opponents (the Denver Broncos) to lose. I won’t rehash the whole Tim Tebow sturm und drang. Suffice it to say that the Bears were on the brink of fulfilling my wishes when Barber made his two critical errors, and the Broncos capitalized and won the game.
Of course, I reacted like the typical sports fan. How could he have done something so idiotic, so stupid? Why were they paying this guy millions (I’m just guessing here) of dollars to pull such bonehead plays? How hard could it be to do his job? Surely there had to be someone better, someone who would have done what he was supposed to do.
But something about seeing those repeated shots of Barber on the bench started to get to me. Something about the way his palms, turned up, lay listlessly on his thighs. The look of utter defeat on his face. Then one of his teammates, the quarterback Caleb Hanie, sat beside Barber and began to speak with him. I couldn’t read their lips, but Barber clearly could barely speak or make eye contact with his Hanie. His body, so powerful and muscular and bulky with his football pads, seemed almost useless to him; he gestured weakly with his hands then let them fall back into his lap. Hanie spoke quietly to him, patted his thigh, then sat silently beside him.
The scene was so human. Lots of times, it seems to me, we fans don’t really care about that. I mean, we’re happy to see the humanity of athletes when they’re winning or succeeding. Then we want to hear the up-cl0se and personal details, the stories behind the stars. But at their lowest moments, such as those moments on the bench for Barber, we’re generally *pissed.* We expect athletes to perform, to rise to the occasion. And when they don’t, particularly in such a costly way, we find it easy to mock and ridicule and vilify them. If you think I exaggerate, check the “comments” section of just about any sports story online. Or the story last week about a football player’s fiancee who was brought to tears by hometown fans deriding her for the team’s poor play.
I’m sure I’ll have my own “typical sports fan” moments in the future, though I hope they will be fewer from now on. But I want to try to remember that these athletes, however much money they make, are people. I couldn’t help but think of Barber’s family–his parents or siblings or partner–and how much they must have been hurting for him as the final seconds of the game ticked away. I want to keep their humanity in mind, because I think it will help me remember mine.