"The NFL is a business."
"NFL stands for Not For Long."
There are many mantras to describe the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture of the National Football League, and every season brings another round of reminders to players that they are nothing more than assets within a business. Despite an industry where money is made on the facade of tradition and loyalty, today's NFL franchise is happy to look past the contributions of a player 9.9 times out of 10 in order to be more cost-effective, more efficient, etc.
The Kansas City Chiefs, for example, just watched the best offensive lineman on the team walk last off-season and the rumors were circulated that Brian Waters was past his prime and washed up. The duo of Ryan Lilja and Jon Asamoah was supposed to be better than anything Waters could add to the team and the Chiefs were going younger and (supposedly) better. One year later, Waters is named to yet another Pro Bowl and plays for the Super Bowl for the first time in his career protecting Tom Brady for the Patriots.
Each scenario comes with its own dynamics, and even the Waters example likely has talking points on all sides. But the example still stands. Despite his tenured career with the Chiefs, once a player is deemed expendable or too expensive, the team will move forward on its own terms.
Think of how often you find a team willing to allow the player to have a role or say in matters near the end of his career. Even Peyton Manning has been thrown under the bus in Indianapolis and then has to come out and defend the current clearinghouse of every face and name that helped Indy rise to prominence in the first place. Now, Indianapolis is the talk of the league with a beautiful Super Bowl presentation that was celebrated by fans and sportswriters alike, but it's easily forgotten that, years ago, they were the doormat of the NFL. Now? A shiny new stadium and hundreds of millions just rolled in because Peyton and the Polians did their work.
Now comes the news that Hines Ward might be the latest veteran NFL icon released from the team. That's just a report at this point, and Ward says it's news to him. But he's also clear that it is not at all what he wants to happen.
Ward wrote on his Facebook page, "I don't normally like to respond to rumors, but as I've said all along, I want to finish my career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. And as I've already told the organization, I am willing to work with them to restructure my contract to make sure this happens.''
Ward is the icon of that city of Pittsburgh for the Steelers. More than Troy Polamalu. More than Ben Roethlisberger. More than every great defensive player with the first name of James. Ward is the workingman's wideout. He blocks with the best of them. He's not afraid to get dirty. He plays in everything and through everything. He's been doing whatever it takes for the Steelers to win since being named the team's third round selection before the '98 season. As in 1998.
He's second among active players in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He's a four time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl MVP. It's also possible he's a Hall of Fame candidate (although with the current lack of respect for wideouts, it's hard to tell what will happen in the future). There's no doubt that the team will shower Ward with respect and honor and ceremonies in the next several years after he retires. Yet one question remains:
Why not display the same for him now?
The fact is that every team does this. There's no doubt that Manning and the Colts will kiss and make up. Waters and the Chiefs will likely do the same. Every franchise has its heroes and every hero has his franchise. No matter what bad blood comes up, they need each other. A team is only as good as its players, but a player cannot stand alone from a specific team, a locker room marked in time surrounded by specific guys. That's why every Hall of Fame speech includes more "we" language than "me."
What's the harm in keeping Ward on the roster now? What if a team decided that freeing up the most amount of money possible wasn't the ultimate goal? What if providing a roster spot to a team icon over a kid who might turn the corner became more important?
It's not an extreme scenario where keeping Ward will keep the Steelers from winning. Instead, it's about showing respect and honor near the end of a player's career instead of after it.
While Pittsburgh is already known for many positive things over the years, they could easily set another example with their treatment of Ward. The NFL could learn to show a little respect to its players, even if it costs them a bit of efficiency in the process.
Check out SB Nation's Steelers blog for more information on Ward at Behind the Steel Curtain.