He didn’t have much to say about Cravens’s specific situation after practice, other than that he was praying for him. It served as a reminder that sometimes a teammate, like any colleague, doesn’t know what’s going on in the private lives of his co-workers. All Thompson could draw from was his own experiences in a world that sometimes separates the athlete from the human being.
“It’s way bigger than football,” Thompson said. “So for him, I hope he gets to handle everything and gets himself back together with whatever may be going on.”
Some in the Redskins’ fan base reacted angrily to the news, not surprising given the broad perception of athletes. After all, they have money and fame, and they’re living a dream many would kill for. Why are they complaining?
This is all true. But athletes are also humans, a fact that often gets overlooked in sports fans’ myopic perspective of them — and, at times, the narrow perspective of the athletes themselves. Cravens’s situation is a reminder that life can be mentally and emotionally overbearing, whether it’s working in a cubicle with five people or playing on a field in front of 50,000.
“That’s the tough part about being professional athletes,” said Thompson, who defended Cravens in the comments section of a team fan page on Instagram on Sunday. “We’re not looked at as being regular human beings. We’re basically looked at as these objects running around on a field, or on a court, and making a lot of money and putting smiles on people’s faces that love their teams. That’s what it is, and it’s sad that it has to be that way because we’re humans. And we’re just regular people.”
That sometimes gets lost for fans of professional sports, when their rooting interest is no longer a school, but a franchise. There isn’t, at the minimum, a three-year expectation as there is in college fandom. Three years is the average career length in the NFL, where even rookies are expected to contribute immediately. With a new crop of players entering the system every spring, the window of opportunity can close just as quickly as it opened.
“It’s hard to understand unless you’re going through it or doing it,” said linebacker Will Compton, who is good friends with Cravens but didn’t want to discuss his personal matters. “This is a stressful business, man. It really is. You’re in a performance-based business every single day of your life. There’s really no getting away from that.”
Whatever his situation, Cravens thought it was hard enough to end his NFL dreams before the start of his second season at 22.
Less than 12 hours after the public found out about Cravens’s retirement request, he reflected on his football life on Snapchat by posting newspaper clippings. Cravens snapped a survey he filled out as a sophomore in high school, asking what was his dream job. He wrote the NFL. When asked what skillsets it would take to get there, Cravens wrote discipline, athleticism and hard work while telling his followers, “Don’t tell me dreams don’t come true.”
All of that was deleted the next morning from his Snapchat story. His Instagram has been scrubbed clean of just about every mention of the Redskins, leaving mainly his memories to what was likely a better time at USC.
“In college, our fans are so great that they really care about us as human beings too,” said Thompson, who played at Florida State from 2009-12. “When I got to this level, it was like, oh, we’re just objects that play for your team. You don’t care how I am as a person. You don’t care what I’ve got going on off the field. All you care is about is what I can do for you and how I can make you feel on Sundays. It’s tough.”
It’s an uphill battle for an athlete to remain genuine, as Thompson experienced nearly a year ago when he shared the joy he felt about his brother being released from prison after serving 15 years.
While some celebrated with him, there was enough negativity he received that ate him up.
“It hurt,” Thompson said. “It made me upset, but then I honestly had to come back to myself and be like, man, it’s gonna be humans like that. Just nasty, unhappy, mean people; that’s what it is. I have to remind myself of that because I will want to trigger and say something to these people, but it’s all on social media. If that person saw me man-to-man, they wouldn’t say a word. So, I have to think about that also. These people are basically hiding behind their phones, or computers, saying all this stuff and their profile picture is of something else that’s not even them. I think that says a lot too. We just have to find a way to deal with it, and it’s tough because it’s always like, ‘You play football. You shouldn’t care about this. You shouldn’t care about that.’ Nah. If I was saying something to you about how bad you were at your job, you’d feel some type of way about that.”
It’s part of the long-standing social construct between the professional athlete and the fan. No matter how many autographs Cravens and Thompson sign, they will still be regarded as athletes, and therefore not like the rest of us. Even if they say, feel or think otherwise.
“I just hope people on the outside see that we’re talking about a human being, not just a football player and somebody that you see playing on Sundays for your team,” Thompson said. “It’s waayyyy bigger than that. I can’t stress that enough.”