Athletes are people too. That should go without saying, but it needs to be repeated in the wake of the tragic death of Pittsburgh Steelers reserve quarterback Dwayne Haskins, killed Saturday when he was struck by a dump truck in South Florida.
His death at age 24 opened a window into NFL culture and our sports consumer culture. The view was not pretty.
Some of the reporting and reaction to Haskins’s death by NFL insiders was repugnantly callous and insensitive, merely reinforcing the notion that the players — 70 percent of whom are Black like Haskins — are treated like disposable razor blades. Both ESPN information guru Adam Schefter and nonagenarian Pro Football Hall of Fame executive and NFL Radio analyst Gil Brandt reduced Haskins’s untimely demise to the final act in a failed pro football career for a flamed-out first-round pick.
Nothing more and nothing less. That’s gross and grossly dehumanizing. Haskins was more than another in a long list of quarterbacks who didn’t pan out for Washington, one of the worst-run organizations in all of pro sports thanks to unctuous owner Dan Snyder. He was a husband, a son, a friend, a teammate, and above all a fellow human being.
They walked back their words, Schefter deleting his initial tweet highlighting how Haskins struggled to catch on as a starting QB and Brandt apologizing for his on-air comments, which included saying Haskins “was a guy that was living to be dead.”
An apology and a tribute to Dwayne Haskins. pic.twitter.com/QxjShC4ZYu— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 11, 2022
Brandt also declared that Haskins might not have been hit trying to cross a South Florida highway if he had stayed in school another year at Ohio State instead of declaring for the draft as a redshirt sophomore following a lone season lighting it up as the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback.
While taking a postmortem shot at Haskins’s professionalism, Brandt also omitted that Haskins was in South Florida working out with Steelers teammates.
It’s easy to vilify both Schefter and Brandt. But they’re products of the NFL culture and our culture in general. We all would do well to remember there are human beings under those helmets.
A certain degree of public scrutiny and criticism is part and parcel with the visibility, fame, and compensation of being a world-class competitor/entertainer. That’s been true for athletes for decades. Just look at the contentious relationship Ted Williams enjoyed with the Boston press.
However, it does feel like we’ve crossed the Rubicon in separating athletes from their humanity. The Internet, social media, and the widespread acceptance of sports gambling have accelerated that cold bifurcation and the blatant commodification of athletes for our enjoyment.
The death of Haskins represents a good time to step back and take stock. What is someone’s worth? Is it only what they can do for us? Is it only what they do relative to us? Is it only how they fit into our lives?
Increasingly, we measure and view people in all walks of life through the prism of what they do professionally, and what they can provide to us and for us. That’s their total value.
I experience this through the oft-repeated refrain “stick to sports,” as if my sole raison d’être is to provide sports commentary.
It’s 20 times worse for athletes who have to field messages from angry fans or followers or fantasy owners. In the minds of too many in the public, quarterback isn’t a job. No, it’s who someone is in their entirety, why they exist, all they are capable of being.
Athletes get rendered as two-dimensional figures in a three-dimensional world.
We live in an increasingly transactional society with instant access, instant information, and instant gratification. For Schefter, it appeared, Haskins’s death was just another piece of information to push out before anyone else got it, just more grist for the one-man information mill.
His excoriated tweet reflected that: “Dwayne Haskins, a standout at Ohio State before struggling to catch on with Washington and Pittsburgh in the NFL, died this morning when he got hit by a car in South Florida, per his agent Cedric Saunders. Haskins would have turned 25 years old on May 3.”
That tweet engendered immediate backlash from players, including Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. Schefter deleted the tweet.
In fairness to Schefter, all of us in this field have misspoken or written something that didn’t come off the way we intended or was harsher than we intended, myself included. It’s an occupational hazard of working with words. While what Schefter relayed was factually correct, it was neither the time nor the place for that piece of information.
I once was rebuked by friends and colleagues for a characterization of the impulse control of Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and his brother, former Boston College center Sean Williams. My words and my tone were not the correct ones. It was a learning experience.
Schefter and Brandt’s comments aren’t the disease. They’re the symptoms of one that increasingly views athletes like stocks — commodities to be acquired, graded, celebrated, and discarded.
Fans root for the preferred laundry and the decision-makers — this is now particularly prevalent in baseball — and not the athletes. They cheer processes over people.
Haskins’s heart-rending death reminded me of another 24-year-old football player whose career didn’t go as planned before he was taken too soon.
Former Patriots defensive lineman Marquise Hill died in 2007 after a Jet Ski accident on Lake Pontchartrain. It was early in my career, and the Globe sent me to New Orleans to cover Hill’s funeral, which was attended by Patriots owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick, and the players. It was a gut-wrenching experience that has stayed with me. A life snuffed out far too early.
You don’t hear the name of Hill, a 2004 second-round pick, much anymore. But the type of loss that the families of Hill, who left behind a son, and Haskins experienced trumps anything you’ll ever experience on a scoreboard or if your favorite team’s prized draft pick doesn’t pan out.
You can’t lose sight of that perspective.
For a moment, Schefter and Brandt did. It’s a near-certainty that they were not the only ones.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.