In games that I have no emotional stake in, I root for chaos. And punts — both blocked and returned — provide a good chance of something ridiculous happening.
Having learned this stupid fact, there’s one moment that stands out to me during the crazy NFC divisional playoff game between Minnesota and New Orleans.
No, not the Diggs catch and run. Not even the goosebump-inducing chants of, “SKOL! SKOL!” ringing throughout U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis before the kneel down on the extra point.
I’m thinking about a pivotal moment that happened earlier in the fourth quarter.
With 5:28 remaining and the Vikings up 20-14, the Saints forced a fourth-and-14 punt. On the snap, Saints defensive end George Johnson got penetration up the middle, jabbed his left hand toward Vikings punter Ryan Quigley’s right foot and blocked the punt. The ball was recovered at the Minnesota 40-yard line, and the Saints took the lead shortly after.
The 30-year-old Johnson is on his fourth team, having not started a single game in eight of his nine NFL seasons. It was a great play that merited attention and praise.
In the moment, however, he received relatively little of either.
The Fox broadcasting team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman was too busy fawning over a Saints player coming off the edge, Taysom Hill.
Hill is a third-string quarterback who coach Sean Payton likes to use in special teams packages. He was also credited initially by Buck and Aikman for blocking the punt.
After the replay showed that was not the case, Buck hastily corrected himself. Hill didn’t block it, he said, but his motor and his heart certainly contributed. Buck and Aikman proceeded to practically bend over backwards to give Hill credit for that block.
Hill is a white man. Johnson is black. Do you see what I’m getting at here?
This wasn’t the first instance of this sort of language used to describe players of different races, and it certainly won’t be the last.
For example, I’ve heard some of these words attached to players like Tom Brady or Julian Edelman: Scrappy. Film buff. Competitor.
Let’s compare that with adjectives used to describe players like Richard Sherman or Dez Bryant: Hot-headed. Freakish. Outspoken.
Hill is a great athlete, sure. Check out some of his highlight reels from his days at BYU if you don’t believe me. But the extent to which Buck and Aikman went out of their way to compliment Hill on that particular play — a play where Hill did not affect the outcome in a meaningful way — is a potential example for the racial bias that exists in sports broadcasting.
The camera operators for Fox followed Hill to the sideline after it was known Johnson was credited for the block. Heck, even the Saints’ and BYU’s Twitter feeds gave him the credit without mentioning Johnson.
It’s not their fault per se, but they are a symptom of a larger problem in sports. Players like Sherman and Bryant are given so much more grief when they shout at a referee or an opponent than Brady does. Look at how Twitter talked about Sherman’s postgame interview after Seattle’s 2014 playoff win against San Francisco. Words like crazy and unhinged immediately pop up.
It’s 2018, people. I propose we put these tired clichés to bed. Instead of labeling Marshawn Lynch, one of the nicest, most interesting players in the league, a thug or head case, we ought to lift him up.
Let’s make sure we’re accurate with our words. Athletes are people, and they hear and read what we call them.