When people attend a theatrical performance they are called an audience.
When they attend a sporting event, they’re called a crowd.
I’m starting to wonder why we make this distinction.
On Sunday in the NFC Championship game, Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler and his teammates came out and performed poorly in the early going, falling behind 14-0 to the rival Green Bay Packers. Cutler was 4-10 for only 61 yards when, at the 4:11 mark of the 2nd quarter, Cutler felt something let go in his left knee. He felt pain, but more important, the knee had become unstable…loose. However, he made so little show of it that apparently no one on the sidelines, TV booth or TV control trucks noticed it.
From this point on, two parallel, but virtually opposite stories began to play out. One was the real story of an injured player refusing to give in to his body’s betrayal, playing with pain and risking further and more serious injury. The other story was of an aloof and spoiled athlete who used a little pain to quit on his team.
Unfortunately, the first story was invisible while the second one was played out before an audience numbering in the tens of millions.
We know now that Cutler suffered a grade two tear of the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his left knee. With this injury, there’s an initial twinge of pain, but the real problem is instability in the joint. Bears’ center Olin Kreutz said he could see the knee “wiggle” as Cutler walked back to the huddle. Just to be clear, this is a very bad thing if you’re livelihood depends on you moving quickly to avoid large men with bad intent, running fast and throwing hard and accurately. Also, playing on a torn MCL significantly increases the risk of tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). A torn ACL almost always require surgery, rehab and a 6-9 month recovery period. It's also ended many athletes' careers.
Still, Cutler continued to play. After the Bears punted, Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers threw an interception and Cutler returned with 49 seconds left in the half. Two plays later, Cutler threw his first interception. Whether this pick was caused by his bum knee is anybody’s guess.
It’s unclear when exactly Cutler told the doctors and coaches about his knee, but at halftime he was examined by the Bears’ medical staff. The MCL sprain was diagnosed (the extent of tearing and the grade of the tear can only be determined with a MRI) and team doctors advised Cutler not to return to the game. Cutler listened to the advice and elected to ignore it. Instead, he received treatment, the knee was wrapped and he was “given something for the pain,” presumably an injection. The Bears received the ball to begin the second half with Cutler under center. Two handoffs and an inaccurate pass later, the Bears punted.
As it turned out, Cutler wouldn’t return to the field. However, if you want to keep playing on a torn MCL, you have to keep it moving so the internal bleeding doesn’t cause the knee to stiffen up. So Cutler took to the stationary bike which the Fox Sports cameras captured. The bike didn’t do the trick and Cutler finally realized that he was done for the day. Although severely disappointed, he switched into “good teammate” mode. According to young backup QB Caleb Hanie, "He (Cutler) talked to me a lot coming off the field," Hanie said. "Trying to calm me down. Telling me to trust my line. Trust my reads. ... I thought he was well into the game. ... He told me what blitzes they were bringing. What coverages they were running." The Fox cameras didn’t share any of this with its audience. Instead, they showed Cutler sitting on a bench…none of his teammates were in the shot. Later they showed him standing on his own power…again alone.
The Fox broadcast team of Joe Buck and former Dallas Cowboys QB Troy Aikman provided little information on Cutler’s injury. Either they didn’t have the information about Cutler ignoring doctors’ advice to continue to play through pain and risking more serious injury or the Fox team just didn’t like the story line. In any case, the story told in pictures and mostly an absence of words was one of a pouty and unpopular quarterback, healthy enough to ride a bike, quitting on his team.
Cutler is also responsible for the true story getting lost. It’s said about some actors and actresses that “the camera loves them.” Well, the camera hates Cutler and the feeling is mutual. It’s not that he’s a bad actor…he simply refuses to act.
The only "role" he cares to play is quarterback. While some sports stars behave as if they assume that the camera is constantly on them, Cutler assumes nothing about the cameras...they simply don't matter in his world.
It was suggested by many fans, media members and even other NFL players that they’d feel differently about Cutler if he’d been carted off the field or at least helped off by his teammates or training staff. It would have looked better if Cutler would have shown more evidence of intense pain for the benefit of the cameras. The least he could have done was lean on a pair of crutches while on the sideline.
Of course, Cutler did none of these things because, as he saw it, there was no reason to do these things. Based on the injury, he was no doubt experiencing pain, but it was tolerable…no need to wince, groan or grit his teeth. While he couldn’t run well if at all, he could walk and stand on his own power, so there was no need for carts or crutches. And although Cutler did what he could to help his replacements, he saw no reason to crowd in with his teammates and coaches when his team had the ball…he just watched the game.
Steven Spielberg and Russell Crowe could have made this a compelling story of courage and shattered dreams. Fox Sports and Jay Cutler are clearly no Spielberg-Crowe. They let the audience down and that audience quickly showed their displeasure. Unfortunately for Cutler, it’s all directed at him.
I guess it’s all a sign of the times. I have a suggestion for the NFL, though. At the annual combine where top draft prospects are evaluated through interviews, exams, 40-yard dashes and various drills, they may want to consider finding the time to add a screen test.
Sources: nfl.com, sun-times.com, sportsillustrated.cnn.com