In any story, there are convenient truths, inconvenient realities, lies, damned lies and statistics. This story, this grand old circus sunk itself into that quagmire the moment Adam Schefter published his report and unleashed a thousand wriggling takes. We start with the usual preamble, that Calvin Johnson has not made any decision official yet. Good, that's out of the way. Let's move on, because everyone else has.
It's too convenient today to come out and blame this on the Lions, and that's exactly where the unimaginative and uncreative are turning. They do make for compelling villains. The Lions represent failure in the NFL, a league that wants you to perceive them as a grand gilded palace where morality and victory are inexorably intertwined. The Lions, for all the loss and failure, do not get to be lovable losers like baseball's Cubs. Their ineptitude is somehow far more offensive to the American sports psyche, and so when this kind of wrinkle appears, the kind where Calvin Johnson talks about making 2015 his last season in professional football, they're a perfect target. No, they don't just have the misfortune of losing with great players on the roster, but they waste that talent. It's not enough that they lose like so many other organizations in this league, but that in doing so, they choke the life and will to play the game out of their players. It is a singularly unique trait of the Lions, you see.
It is too easy to project this onto the Lions and more onto Calvin Johnson while ignoring an inconvenient reality. Phrases like "plenty still left in the tank" and "he still has a lot of game left" will be used to describe Megatron, and to cloud and obfuscate the truth that hangs over the star wide receiver, as will the trope of the Lions wasting the careers of their stars. He doesn't want to lose anymore. He's being wasted with this team. He can still play the game but not if it means he'll never win a playoff game.
The truth of the matter, the core of this whole episode, is nothing that fits our football narratives and collective tropes so neatly. Calvin Johnson is hurt, and he wants to stop playing because it hurts too much to play this game. That may not seem like much, but consider what is going on here. We're talking about something that flies in the face of established machismo.
We're talking about Calvin Johnson thinking about quitting. Quitting.
Are you mad at that word? Does it make you angry that I'm even insinuating that Calvin Johnson may or may not be a quitter by saying that he wants to quit?
Good. You're the one I need to talk to, goddammit.
I need to get it in your skull that quitting is fine. Quitting is okay. Quitting doesn't mean you're a quitter. This is a game, a game, not some glorious burden to be fulfilled by transcendent heroes. This is not war, packaged; the NFL is desperate to sell this as the most patriotic patriot spectacle of battle in the whole goddamn world and it's not, it's a game. Likewise, the fans are desperate to believe that this gift of athleticism is some sacred cow never to be squandered, never to be refused, never to be rejected in favor of another life; it is a pinnacle to the sports fan, nothing else.
The truth isn't so kind. A brilliant athlete plays one of the most violent team sports in the world. When the game hurts too much, like it does for Calvin Johnson, you weigh the decision to walk away.
And there I go again. Even when I'm writing about this, I'm still allergic to using the phrase "to quit." I keep calling it walking away, or any other euphemism that comes to mind just so we don't use that singular word that makes us all so very upset. We don't want to think of these guys, these football players, as capable of quitting without smearing their character.
The accepted trope is that quitting is bad. It's a lack of mental strength. A lack of iron will. Quitting must mean you're a quitter. A loser. A football player can't be a hero if he quits, can he?
It flies against what we've been taught as fans, and it's coming up in our minds more and more. Chris Borland's decision to depart football at 24 was quitting, not retiring, and the sporting world majority crushed him for it. To take Borland's act as a rational process committed by a top competitor is unacceptable to them; it must be because of a defect, or perhaps the softening of America and its proud blood sport. Or maybe it was the fault of the dysfunctional 49ers. Yes, yes, that must be it.
And that's where the disconnect on Calvin Johnson is happening. No one wants to talk about it because it would give credence to the idea that others who have walked away early in recent years - Patrick Willis, Maurice Jones-Drew, Jason Worilds - are doing so out of the same desires espoused by Borland not to be ruined by this game. That's the same reason why Johnson wants to leave. All the sugar-coating in the world cannot save us from the fact that they are quitting this game, no matter if we call it retirement, walking away, hanging it up or anything else. We aren't ready to accept that quitting needs to be something that's okay in football.
That's the damn inconvenient reality of the situation. It's far easier to just blame the Lions, or something else.