When private lives are public: Athletes are people too

CINCINNATI — Michael Johnson first got an inkling of what it meant to be an NFL player when he had a visit with two young cousins a couple of years ago.

“They’d be so excited. ‘We saw you on TV! Ahhhhh!’” said Johnson, the Bengals defensive end. “They forget, I’m your cousin. I’ve always known you. But they’re little 5- and 6-year-olds. They’re brothers but they always tell each other, “He’s my cousin,
he’s not your cousin,” but they’re brothers. They compete with little stuff like that.

“It’s cool to see how much you mean to people.”

Athletes do mean a lot to people. No matter what level of play, sports are engrained deeply into our society. We associate our lives with our favorite pro teams and teams from the schools we attended (or wish we had attended) and how they do on the field of play affects us. A win equals a good day. A loss and life just ain’t right even though you had no bearing on the outcome of the contest, all of your positive vibes and cheers notwithstanding.

Sometimes we forget that athletes are people, too. Sometimes they forget that fact, or the fact that they are more recognizable people. What they do and say matters to us. Maybe more than it should, but it matters.

If Adam Jones isn’t a cornerback in the NFL it’s doubtful anyone hears about the incident last week outside a downtown Cincinnati bar. When he tweets that he’s being arrested, would anyone re-tweet the announcement if it weren’t for the fact that he plays for the Bengals? Would he have been in the situation in the first place?

The case of Jones and his alleged assault against 34-year-old Shannon Wesley will play itself out in the court system. The video surveillance footage of the altercation is out there for us to see, but it only shows a snippet of the story. His side is that he was protecting himself. Her side is that he was harassing her friends and she was sticking up for them. I’ll let the police and the lawyers and judge sort all of that out. Neither side looks good in the matter.

What I wonder is: Where does the line of privacy exist for players out in public? Is there a line? How much do players owe fans when they are off the field, attempting to bring a little normalcy to lives that are far from normal?

“It comes with the territory,” said linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has had a couple of off-field incidents of his own. In 2012 he was charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly punching a bar manager. The charges were eventually dropped.

“When you put yourself in a situation where you want to go eat, of course you want to have some privacy and be with your wife, your family, your kids but we’re in a situation where we’re in the limelight and people are going to know who we are so things like that we have no control over.

“We’re human too. We’re just like everyone else. We want to go out and have a good time, be with friends.”

Reds’ second baseman Brandon Phillips has a gleaming public image in part because of his friendly nature with fans. He’s got a healthy relationship with more than 880,000 Twitter followers, interacting with them and posing for pictures with them not only at ballparks but out on the street. He doesn’t have to do that but it has become part of his personality.

Not everyone is so outgoing.

“I’m not real flashy so I’m not trying to do anything to draw attention to myself but I try to be cordial,” said Johnson, who at 6-foot-7, 270 pounds is hard not to notice. “I’ve always told myself to enjoy it while it lasts because none of us is going to play this game forever and when we’re done we’re going to pretty much be irrelevant as far as people wanting your autograph.”

Johnson recently had a fund-raising event for Most Valuable Kids, an organization that serves underprivileged children, at Princeton Bowl in Tri-County. Numerous teammates, including Jones, showed up to help and he’s just one of the players who have foundations or donate their time to charitable causes for more than just the good publicity it draws.

“They look up to us big time,” said Johnson. “For us, we’re just being ourselves being around kids and different people but for them that’s major to them. A lot of times for us it’s everyday life and we forget that people really look up to us and admire us whether we want them to or not. We’re just in that position.”

Last month it became known that left tackle Andrew Whitworth and his wife Melissa paid the funeral expenses of a Louisiana high school player who had died following a hit suffered at practice. It wasn’t a story that Whitworth had wanted to publicize but word of mouth about the gesture got out.

While it’s a grand gesture, it would not have gotten the national play it did if not for Whitworth’s standing as an NFL player.

“There’s not a moment where I don’t step out and think that,” said Whitworth of being recognizable. “I think it’s important not just for trouble or anything negative but positive things as well. There are a lot of opportunities you have to make someone’s day. I think it’s something all guys should think about; where they are and where they are at and where they are seen is important. Sometimes that’s the only perspective some guys have of him.”