More predictable than an Usain Bolt victory? The NFL question
About an hour before the men’s 100-metre dash final at the 2012 Olympic Summer Games I tried to pre-empt a conversation we all knew would arise about whichever man triumphed in the most intense (less than) 10 seconds in sport.
It’s the same discussion that crops up every four years, as the mainstream sports world parachutes in on track and field.
Shortly after the 100-metre champion stakes his claim to the title of “World’s Fastest Man,” media speculation begins that the Olympic champion — no matter his level of experience in American football — is either considering or should consider a jump to the NFL. Initial reports, of course, never turn into anything substantial because in cranking out “talk pieces” about how an elite sprinter would manage the transition to the NFL nobody even bothers to consult the sprinter himself.
Or to apply common sense to the question.
Before the race my Twitter followers and I discussed the over/under for number of hours between the winner crossing the finish line and the first stories fantasizing about a move to pro football. We set the line at 12 hours, and I took the under.
By 10:30 this piece, clearly written before the race and updated with the winner’s name and winning time, was already circulating online.
Do a google news search for “Usain Bolt and NFL” and it becomes clear that a lack of factual grounding doesn’t have to stop a news story from spreading.
Admittedly, Bolt’s once-in-a-lifetime speed is seductive, and if you’re an NFL general manager it’s tough to watch Sunday night’s nearly inhuman display of horsepower without imagining how quickly any of the eight men who lined up in the final could turn a kickoff into six points.
But no matter how much use an NFL team might dream it can make of Bolt’s speed on the gridiron, I’m betting Bolt’s wheels serve him better on the track. And if you think signing a pro football contract would improve Bolt’s life, you clearly haven’t considered the sacrifice you’re asking him to make.
Bolt isn’t just good at his job; he’s the best who ever practiced his chosen profession, his performance and personality combining to make him one of the largest one-man brands on the planet. Forbes estimates he earns $20 million a year, and that figure will skyrocket if he can follow up Sunday’s electrifying run with another gold medal in the 200 metres.
But for the sake of the NFL he’s supposed to trade a craft he has mastered to undertake a career with a steep and violent learning curve?
And a salary cap?
In March the Detroit Lions signed the league’s most feared receiver, Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, to an eight-year contract worth $132 million, an average value of $16.5 million per season. I’ve never been strong at math but I can say with confidence that 20 is more than 16.5 — and that assumes the untested Bolt demands a Johnson-sized contract on his way into the NFL.
Even though we still don’t know if Bolt can catch.
Or change directions.
Or muster the focus to do any of that a frigid January Sunday in Green Bay.
In short, the NFL offers Bolt more injuries, more discomfort and more awkward moments, all for significantly less money than he’s making now.
Usain St. Leo Bolt is a lot of things — freakish athlete, endorsement king, Jamaican national hero — but he’s not dumb. Nor is he as short-sighted as the people suggesting he should invest his time and risk his health and reputation on an NFL career.
And if you’re searching for clues to the unraveling of U.S. sprint dominance, a good place to start is the uniquely American idea that the world’s fastest athletes belong not in singlets and spikes but in cleats and shoulder pads.
The gradual shift in the balance of sprint power from the U.S. to the Caribbean owes to several factors. Some, like track’s disappearance from the American sports mainstream, are easy to identify. Others factors, like, as Bomani Jones points out, the ripple effect of the integration of big-time college sports in the 1960s, lurk deeper beneath the surface.
But we can’t ignore the role of culture and the Football-Industrial Complex in siphoning talented sprinters from the sport.
At 25 years old, Usain Bolt runs the race of his life and for the next couple of weeks people will pepper him with questions about whether or not he wants to give football a shot. Bolt will compare his health (wonky back, no concussions) and salary ($20 million and counting annually) to, say, DeSean Jackson’s (two concussions, $47 million over 5 years) and conclude there’s no reason to change careers.
But if he had grown up in Texas or Ohio he might have had to answer that question a decade ago, when he would have had time to develop the skills to make NFL success more of a possibility. He’d have considered his options with peer pressure and popularity pushing him toward football, and without world records and an eight-figure salary pulling him toward track.
Strong chance he might have answered differently.
These days, though, the answer is obvious.
He can’t afford the pay cut.
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