Eric Berry is fighting to come back for a Kansas City Chiefs fanbase that, in increasing numbers, don’t deserve him.
Sports fans can be the worst.
Under every tweet about Eric Berry’s perpetual day-to-day status, in every comment section on any article about his recovery progress, there is an absolute flood of anti-Berry vitriol from Kansas City Chiefs fans.
“He’s not tough enough,” they say.
“He got paid and now he doesn’t care,” they post.
“He should just get pumped full of painkillers and play,” they chide.
“Just cut him,” they advise.
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Anyone who questions Berry’s toughness is, I can only imagine, one of those football fans who feel like they were born straight out of a parody of football fans. Delusions of power buried deep in the psyche of a guy who will never see the irony of shouting at a television about how humans at top physical conditioning are “too soft” while planted firmly in the ever-widening dent in the cushion of his Cheeto-and-hot-wing-sauce encrusted sofa.
If only these armchair medical trainers could spend a single day with a Haglund’s deformity. I wonder how many trips to the fridge for a refill on the blue cheese dressing pumping through their veins they could execute before ending up in a walking boot—especially when they hit the linoleum in the kitchen. That’s when it gets extra tricky to plant, turn on a dime, and get that extra burst toward the cookie jar.
It should go without saying, especially since it’s been said all season, but a Haglund’s deformity can be excruciatingly painful. It’d be a tall order for your average person to even walk with one without the aid of special footwear, drugs, or both. And Berry is out here trying to play football with one. Surgery is the only permanent solution (as we’ve seen with John Wall of the Washington Wizards), and it’s fairly safe to assume that’ll be the path Berry takes after the season is over. But having just a sprinkle of Berry in the playoffs, be it this weekend against the New England Patriots or in a potential Super Bowl in Atlanta (Berry’s hometown), is 100% worth the risk of waiting to have the surgery and possibly not having him for the first couple weeks of the 2019 season. Any Chiefs fan who tells you otherwise is lying to themselves.
So Berry not playing is not a matter of toughness. If he’s not playing, it’s a certain sign that the pain is just that severe, or the swelling is just that significant. Berry came back from an ACL tear early in his career. Then, in 2015, he came back from chemotherapy a pound heavier than before he started it and proceeded to have the two best seasons of his career. If he’s on the bench, it’s because he physically cannot play.
The demand from fans that players play through unimaginable pain highlights one of the most toxic elements of the fan-player relationship—the treatment of players as products. You see this in all forms of arts and entertainment, but it is particularly nasty in the sports world, where athletes are putting their bodies and long-term health on the line. When players are hurt, fans don’t see humans; they see expensive toys that are malfunctioning. Like entitled children, they throw hissy fits over their broken toys, demanding their parents buy them something new.
But no matter how many millions of dollars they’re paid, athletes are still human and they don’t owe fans anything when they’re injured. Injuries are one of the many risks that come with a franchise’s investment in a player, and this is a universal understanding of sports. Or, at least it is among those who actually have a financial investment in the athletes. Fans, on the other hand, borderline on treating athletes on their favorite teams as their property—to be bought, sold, and thrown in the dumpster at their will.
Of course, that means the tone toward Berry will change instantly if he suits up at some point during the rest of these playoffs and makes a few impactful plays. He’ll be back to being a hero and his long recovery time will be all but forgotten. Athletes aren’t stupid. They know how fleeting that is, and it’s why loyalty to a franchise or a fanbase is overrated. Fans are never as loyal to players as players are to them. Fans will turn on an athlete the moment they don’t live up to expectations. The double-edged sword of Berry’s perseverance and greatness is that the expectation for him is to be otherworldly.
Players are expected to remain loyal to the fans as if life without them doesn’t exist. And yet, when age or injury slows them down, those same fans become pragmatic business associates. Over the last two years, Jamaal Charles and Derrick Johnson were both cut and most Chiefs fans saw both as the right decision. But when they signed with the Chiefs’ most bitter rivals in the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders, many of those same fans treated it as some act of betrayal.
This is the constant contradiction players live under with their fans. Fans demand loyalty, but your only real value to them is in your performance. When they get rid of you, it’s just business. But when you find a new place to take your business, suddenly it’s personal. When you simply cannot win, there’s no problem with chasing the money.
And yet, with Berry, he remains steadfast in his loyalty to the Chiefs franchise. Yes, he was given a massive contract to stay, but it is undeniable that he also wants to be a Chief. He wants to win a Super Bowl in Kansas City.
He’s fighting to come back for a fanbase that, in increasing numbers, don’t deserve him.