First off, I must credit Cian Fahey for pointing this out to me on Twitter. If you watch football, you should be following him. He provides a unique and enlightening view into quarterback evaluation. But this column isn’t about football, but the media’s reaction to it. Last night, the Philadelphia Eagles denied the New York Giants an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth, and superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. did not take the loss well.
Over the past decade, the Giants have done one thing with any consistency: played to the level of their competition. They beat two of the best New England teams ever in Super Bowls, and then rarely made the playoffs in-between. They virtually have a playoff berth locked up this season in the wide-open NFC, and Beckham was no doubt frustrated by their missed opportunity to catch the division-leading Dallas Cowboys. This is Beckham's third year in the NFL, and given how central he is to the Giants offense — he is no doubt beginning to carve out a significant leadership role in the locker room. When I played sports, guys who took losses like that were the ones you could trust most in the heat of the battle. There's a reason we all used to glorify Michael Jordan before he became the face of losing on Twitter.
Now, compare the video of Beckham to headlines from mainstream outlets like USA Today: Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. has locker-room meltdown after loss vs. Eagles. To be fair, USA Today was simply piggybacking off the The New York Daily News' headline which initially read: Odell Beckham Freaks Out as Giants Fail to Clinch Playoff Berth. However, the title has since been changed to a much more accurate: All Odell Beckham could do after Giants fail to clinch playoff spot is scream and shake.
Even Deadspin, which has earned a reputation for calling out malevolence within the mainstream media, printed a hyperbolic headline: Odell Beckham Had A Mini-Meltdown After The Giants' Loss. We can debate how much “mini” qualifies the use of a word whose genesis lies in nuclear catastrophe, but I certainly would not characterize angrily seething as something resembling a “meltdown.”
Want to know what a real meltdown looks like? Let's travel back to last week's Monday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. Tom Brady threw a pass that Julian Edelman dropped, and this was Brady's ensuing reaction.
The Golden Boy's tirade continued to the sideline.
Anyone who has played sports at any point in their lives understands how enraging it is to have a teammate show you up in front of everyone on the field like that. Sports operate almost entirely in shades of gray, but the contrast between last week's Brady tirade and last night's Beckham anger is about as black and white as it gets, unless you take their skin color into consideration – which usually seems to tint these stories one way or another. A simple Google search of Tom Brady and Julian Edelman doesn't return much that resembles the Beckham headlines. Remember, Beckham's frustration came after a loss, and Brady's came up 2-0 in a game they would go on to win 30-23.
Edelman told the media after Monday's contest that “if [Brady] yells at you, he says he loves you.” And that quote dominated most outlets' coverage of the incident (ESPN and Fox Sports, to name a couple). Yahoo printed the most accurate headline: Tom Brady loses his mind, shows up Julian Edelman after bad route.
What Tom Brady did isn't the end of the world, and sometimes great leaders like him should make a point in public to try to bring the most out of their teammates, but continuing the tantrum to the sideline and throwing water bottles around is completely unnecessary.
The media focused on Edelman's apology for the player most responsible for his NFL stardom other than himself, and moved on as if nothing significant happened. Odell Beckham Jr. (who is just as much of a hothead as Brady but with about 500% more of a reputation for it) screams and slams his head against the wall a few times after a tough loss where his team played poorly, and he gets called out for having something resembling a “meltdown.”
This isn't Beckham's first foray into the amorphous cultural restrictions placed on America's sports heroes either, as he was famously struck back by the sideline kicking net after swinging his helmet at it earlier this season — setting off a multi-week saga that defused the situation into a series of touchdown celebrations where Beckham eventually wound up asking the kicking net to marry him after a game-winning 66-yard touchdown catch against Baltimore. Much was made of the initial incident, and the narrative seemed to expand beyond simply a young player trying to find his inner balance inside America's most emotional league.
These are not cherry picked examples either, as Tom Brady and Odell Beckham Jr. have established themselves as two of the several faces of the NFL. This double standard that seems to fall on racial (or at least cultural) lines is obvious in coverage of other titans of the sport too. I mean, Aaron Rodgers has a freaking touchdown dance sponsored by State Farm.
But when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dances for just a bit too long, we get entire ESPN First Take segments devoted to whether it was a good or bad thing because one defender took exception to it. Cam was the focus of a lot of scrutiny after walking out on his Super Bowl 50 media session following the most agonizing loss of his career, but Patriots head coach Bill Belichick largely gets a pass for intentionally saying nothing in his press conferences (unless you ask him a specific question about football, then he geeks out for quite a long time).
Just imagine the outrage that would fester if Newton had a branded celebration tied to a product not targeted at white America. However, this issue isn't entirely black and white. The league's other African American superstar quarterback, Russell Wilson, seems exempt from this noise. Perhaps it is because he typically does not celebrate much, unlike the vast majority of the NFL — no matter their race, color, or creed. This is a league where players celebrate after every positive play, yet Cam Newton's touchdown celebrations always seem to cause a firestorm at least once a year, with relative silence emanating from the celebrations of intense superstars like Brady and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
Odell Beckham Jr. demonstrated the same frustration that every member of the Giants and their fans were feeling last night in front of a camera, and the knee-jerk reaction was to assume the worst. Beckham does have a penchant for being a hothead, but he is no worse than Tom Brady – one of the most intense competitors in the history of sports. The divide between the reaction to their high-profile blow-ups could not be more stark, and it echoes the larger issues we face every day in America.