The Unrecognized Value of Chad Johnson

BY PETER DAHL

Maybe Chad Johnson was just born at the wrong time.

The NFL’s uniform policies have come under scrutiny recently as they continue to insist that players adhere to the rules down to the smallest detail. Once Oct., the NFL’s month for breast cancer awareness, ends, DeAngelo Williams of the Pittsburgh Steelers will not be allowed to wear any more pink apparel to honor the memory of his mother, who died of breast cancer in 2014. His teammate, Cam Heyward, will continue to be fined as long as he continues to write “Iron Head” on his eye black in honor of his father, former NFL player Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, who also died of cancer.

Of course the line has to be drawn somewhere, but I think we can agree that our gridiron experience would not be diminished by some pink cleats or some customized eye black. It seems to be a clear case of enforcing the letter rather than the spirit of the law.

But, on a larger scale, this is another example of the way in which the NFL continues to reveal its staggering inability to make good public relations decisions, and continues this narrative of the league being anti-women, anti-players and anti-fun.

Perhaps players like Williams and Heyward will protest the NFL’s obnoxious rules, but neither one has the star power to demand enough attention. But what if we had a player like Chad Johnson to make Twitter-ready statements week in and week out against an increasingly untrustworthy league?

During his NFL career, Johnson acted out basically with the hope of getting attention. After finding the limelight quite improbably, he held on to it with a winning combination of dazzling on-field play and an array of antics and gimmicks. Non-uniformity makes the list of his escapades, as he once wore a wrong-colored chinstrap for no apparent reason and took a $5,000 fine as a result.

What if Johnson could take this bold and brash attitude into today’s NFL, beginning his career in 2011 instead of 2001? When he played, the sports and culture climate was less focused on individualism and social issues, social media had not yet taken off in the way it has since and the league had a much better public image (Roger Goodell did not take over until 2006). As a result, many of his behaviors, because of their seemingly selfish nature, were passed off as the actions of a headline-grabbing diva, and, in fact, much of it was, in a sense, pointless.

Today’s environment would have given Johnson the opportunity to trend on Twitter, gain a massive following, keep his name in the headlines, have a ton of fun and antagonize the powers that be, all while helping to bring attention to various maladies in the league and in society.

This era could have helped Johnson in two other important ways. I have made no mention of what this era would mean for him as a player, but it stands to reason that today’s explosive offenses and efficient passing attacks could have made Johnson an even more prolific player, assuming he teamed up with the right quarterback. But, more importantly, our increased concern for domestic violence issues might have saved Johnson from the one true blight on his resume, a misdemeanor domestic violence charge in 2012. Perhaps Johnson and social issues could have had a symbiotic relationship, as he brought attention to them while they worked on his heart.

Of course, this is all a giant hypothetical, which we in the sports world spend an inordinate amount of time discussing. However, it does beg the question: why don’t we have a Chad Johnson today? The fact that we don’t reveals one thing – Chad Johnson is a rare sort of individual. But it also suggests something else: maybe NFL fans don’t want another Chad Johnson.

We’ve seen the way controversial, loud-mouthed, and demonstrative players have been received (Richard Sherman comes to mind) and oftentimes the message from fans is to “just play football.” I think most fans, unfortunately, prefer their players to be as unvaried as their uniforms, so long as they’re playing well on the field. Perhaps this is all another case of sports fans showing their aversion to discomfort.

So maybe Chad Johnson was born at the wrong time. But it might be possible that, even in this day and age, a superstar player with a lot to say and a penchant for touchdown celebrations might just end up being told to get back in line and stop being such a distraction.

Like I said, this is all hypothetical. As Ocho Cinco himself once told us, “There’s three things in life that’s certain: Death, taxes, and 85 will always be open.”

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