Eli Manning's benching another reminder of football's cruelty

The Washington Post

An iconic New York athlete's time came to move on. His skills had eroded, an obvious decline even a casual fan would spot. His team was not competing for championships any more, the titles he had helped win in his prime a memory among persistent defeat. Fans loved him still, but they recognized his waning ability and knew the end was coming. Team officials had planned for his departure, a future without him.

When it happened three years ago, it was Major League Baseball, and Derek Jeter received a year-long feting in every ballpark in the country. When it happened this week, it was the NFL, and Eli Manning cried at his locker on a Tuesday afternoon.

The way the Giants crumpled up Manning and tossed him out a car window is another example of how unforgiving and brutal the NFL is. Manning didn't have Jeter's career, and his profile wasn't as high within his sport, but in the New York sports universe they were on nearly equal footing. Try to come up with a more meaningful athlete to a city than a quarterback who wins two Super Bowls in the middle of starting every game for 14 years.

The Giants may or may not have ended Manning's tenure Tuesday afternoon. Who knows what will happen, especially if — or, more likely, when — the Giants have a new coach and general manager? But they might have. And as they potentially said goodbye to a quarterback who twice beat Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, and who had started 210 consecutive games, they did it without dignity.

Coach Ben McAdoo, a short-timer and lightweight who's trashed Manning all season, told Manning he could keep his consecutive starts streak alive if he wanted, but the Giants wanted to start playing other quarterbacks, with an eye on the future. The only say Manning had in his demotion was whether he wanted to take part in a charade. Manning declined, and McAdoo made him the backup.

"My feeling is that if you are going to play the other guys, play them," Manning said. "Starting just to keep the streak going and knowing you won't finish the game and have a chance to win it is pointless to me, and it tarnishes the streak. Like I always have, I will be ready to play if and when I am needed."

"I think a lot of Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have done a lot for a lot of teams haven't been able to choose the way that they get to move on," McAdoo said. "And I'm not saying that we're moving on. But at some point in time, you have to make hard, tough decisions for the best for the franchise. That's what I have to do here."

McAdoo is right in that Manning's dismissal is symptomatic of the league he plays in. The athletes are commodified from the meat market of the pre-draft combine to the day a team discards them. It is easier for coaches, executives and owners to reckon with the violence of the sport and the damage it inflicts on the participants if they keep it that way, transactional instead of personal, loyalty a foreign concept.

The end is cruel for most athletes, even the greatest, and baseball is not immune. This year's Hall of Fame class shows why the end is so rough. Tim Raines ended his career as a pinch hitter for a lousy Florida Marlins team. Ivan Rodriguez was benched for rookie Wilson Ramos and came up short the next winter in his bid for another contract. Jeff Bagwell missed three-quarters of his last season with chronic shoulder arthritis. If the end was easy, it wouldn't be the end.

But the possibility exists for a ballplayer to finish unscathed, on his terms, even if it does not benefit the team for which he worked for so long. It is naive to think of player-team dynamics as something more than employee-employer agreements. And yet in most cases, if the sport is not football, the player is allowed at least dignity, and at most laurels.

Despite the clear diminishing of his skills over several years, Jeter chose his own exit strategy. He made life harder on his manager, who continued to bat him high in the order and play him at shortstop despite his incapacity to reach base and his dearth of range. And yet the Yankees acceded to Jeter, and when they did, opponents gave him gifts — literal gifts, in rituals before games — all season long. Change the details, and the same could be said of Kobe Bryant.

It is unimaginable for those ceremonies to happen in the NFL. Legends become salary cap casualties. Stars succumb to injuries. Players move on with barely an acknowledgment.

If any team might have subverted the usual NFL callousness, with any player, the Giants and Manning would have been high on the list. Outside of Brady, it's arguable he's given the Giants more than any current player has given one team. Manning, quite clearly, is not the future. He's been a culprit in the Giants' 2-9 mess.

In the present, though, there is little margin in not giving him the dignity of finishing the season. They don't need to know what they have in Geno Smith, because the entire league already knows he's looking up at mediocrity. Maybe they could use their remaining games to learn about rookie Davis Webb, but what kind of far-reaching decision could they base on five games? There was no reason not to let Manning dictate the terms.

And still, there was Manning, choking back tears in front of his locker, surrounded by reporters. He had been a champion and an idol, and it couldn't keep him from getting spit out like so many others, without ceremony. "I don't like it," Manning said. "But it's part of football."

Copyright © 2018, Chicago Tribune
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