Something happened on Monday that's never happened to me before: I wrote a column, and when the e-mail started rolling in, it was unanimously negative. Unanimous! If the people of this great and divided country can agree on one thing, it's that I was wrong about Ricky Williams.
Even when I've written about Lance Armstrong and received hundreds of invective-filled notes, there's always been a few in there saying, "Right on." Not this time. Unanimous. A few more trickled in on Tuesday. The count -- unofficially, as they say on TV, meaning I didn't count too carefully -- was 62 letters against, two backing me, and three that commented on the issue without expressing an opinion about what I'd said.
What I'd said was that Williams, whom I've always enjoyed for his iconoclasm, disappointed me with his self-absorbed, narcissistic behavior in the timing and method of his retirement over the weekend. Just another me-first athlete, I wrote. I also called him a punk, which a couple of readers specifically objected to. I sort of regret using that word. A little. I just can't think of a better one.
Rather than print a long string of letters, I've cobbled together an All-Star letter, since the sentiments expressed were so nearly unanimous. Some letters expressed all of these points, some only one or two of them. But what follows, excerpted from various notes, is a representation of almost every e-mail I got:
"There are things in life more important than football and a man's happiness surely ranks among them. Furthermore, important life decisions don't always coincide nicely with the NFL schedule.
"Many Salon readers would be disappointed if King Kaufman decided his happiness required him to retire from sportswriting, particularly at an 'important' time such as the World Series or Super Bowl. But to begrudge you for such a decision would be entirely selfish on the reader's part. Our judgment of Williams and his decision should be no different.
"If anyone should know all about 'me first' it is the owners who -- to their credit -- make billions of dollars running an NFL with next to no guaranteed contracts for the players. It's a tough world, and in that world Ricky Williams was an employee, nothing more or less. He doesn't owe anybody anything.
"It's only training camp that's about to start, not the season. So the Dolphins have to make a roster move? Big deal. Given how overused Williams was, the Dolphins should have been prepared to replace him if he went down with an injury anyway. And his teammates hated him and wouldn't be in such a fix now if they just played better."
I'd like to be a stand-up guy about this whole thing and say: OK, OK, you're right. I take it all back. I mean, it should and does make a fellow pause when everybody disagrees with him.
But I just don't think I was wrong. Maybe a little harsh, and maybe I should have said something more like "Williams acted this time like a self-absorbed, narcissistic jerk," as opposed to "Williams is a self-absorbed, narcissistic jerk," but that's splitting hairs.
First of all, let me clarify and assure you that I don't care if Ricky Williams plays football. Honest. I have no stake in him. I make no coin on him. Google my name and his. As far as I can tell, prior to Monday's column, I had never so much as typed the man's name. (I think Google is missing a few passing references, but I'm not even sure about that.) If he wants to retire, he has my blessing. I support his right to smoke marijuana in peace. I would have supported that right if he'd stayed in the league too, but that's another issue.
The issue here is the way he went about his retirement. He let down his teammates, his coaches and his team's fans -- you remember them, don't you? They're the ones who supplied him with all that walking-away money. And he couldn't even be bothered to conjure up an "I know this is bad timing. I'm sorry." All he could talk about was himself. If that's not self-absorption and narcissism, I don't know what is. I don't know that he "owes" any of these people anything beyond common decency, but don't we all owe each other that?
His teammates deserve no less of that decency just because they were allegedly not fond of him or they're not as good as the Patriots. No one held a gun to Williams' head and made him run the football all those times over the last two years. He cashed his paycheck and did his job. Square deal. I agree he owes no loyalty to Dolphins management, who I agree screwed up by not having a replacement ready. Dolphins management is in the screwing-up business lately. No news there.
As for the analogy of me to Ricky Williams, well, I'm flattered and amused. Assuming, though, that I were as valuable to Salon as Williams was to the Dolphins, and assuming my readers couldn't just read someone else if I left -- two ridiculous assumptions -- I wouldn't let my co-workers and readers down like that, no. And if it absolutely couldn't be avoided, I would consider their feelings -- shoot, their existence -- and apologize to them, rather than rubbing salt in their wounds by talking about how happy I was.
July is not "plenty early" to give notice. The 2004 season has been underway for some time for NFL teams. Prior to the free agency period would be sort of a messed-up but probably forgivable time to up and quit. Prior to the draft would be decent. Just because football hasn't started yet for you in June and July doesn't mean it hasn't for the professionals.
And saying the Dolphins just have to fill a roster spot is sort of like saying Nirvana just needed to find another guitar player.
Wednesday morning I got this note from a reader who is a pediatrician: "As a medical professional, I am worried about his mental health. We already know about his well-publicized battle with Social Anxiety Disorder. Some of his behavior this week may be giving hints of more sinister forces at play."
Referring to Williams' reported whirlwind travels to Japan, California and the East Coast over the last few days, the doctor continues, "This kind of compulsive and haphazard travel could be a sign of mania. Given his past behaviors and flirtations with depression, he may actually be in the throes of bipolar disorder.
"He admits he has been off any psychiatric meds for a while, owing to his personal and professional happiness in Miami. While the comments he makes in the few statements he gave to Dan Le Batard [the Miami Herald writer who broke the retirement story] are reassuring, it is hard to deny some of the symptoms: Spending large sums of money, whirlwind travel, life-altering decisions made on the fly."
If Williams is indeed in the throes of a mental breakdown, then of course I'd take back what I wrote about his personal failings.
Previous column: Numbers: Kerry is doomed!
- - - - - - - - - - - -