Ricky Williams -- Why Can't We Just Let Him Be?

David Swerdlick

Sportswriters have always made mention of the fact that Williams is shy and soft-spoken, but have seldom entertained the possibility that he might be unhappy with everything going on around him. It would have been too contrary to the mainstream, everyday image of superstar Black athletes -- rich, headstrong, flashy, sexy, quotable, and just happy to be there.

Ricky Williams
I'm in love with Mary Jane. She's my main thing. She makes me feel alright. She makes my heart sing.
-- Rick James

I don't want to be anything other than what I've been trying to be lately. All I have to do is think of me, and I have peace of mind.
-- Gavin DeGraw

Ricky Williams -- collegiate and professional football star -- has apparently done the unthinkable. He did something so terrible that he created national media controversy and earned the scorn of both teammates and fans: He retired from football in his prime, at the height of his wealth, fame, and on-field dominance. All this, presumably, because he wanted to be free to smoke marijuana, without the constant burdens of on-the-job drug testing and image maintenance for the football consuming public.

But there's a little more to it than that.

Ricky Williams' new life actually sounds pretty good. He's off in the California countryside (in the aptly named "Grass Valley"), studying the Indian healing science of Ayurveda, "the knowledge and wisdom of life." Living in a small house, trying to stay out of the spotlight, Williams is learning a new discipline that he might one day use to help others.

Of course, it's doubtful that anyone would go on the record as being against "the knowledge and wisdom of life." Yet, not too many seem to be able to leave Ricky alone or accept his career and lifestyle change. The sports media continue to speculate about Ricky's possible return to football. For months, his former teammates have blamed him for abandoning them and sinking their season. It would seem that a lot of folks can't figure out why anyone would just leave millions of dollars on the table.

But maybe money and marijuana aren't the only issues. Remember that Williams suffers from chronic, clinical shyness. During his first few professional seasons, he did all of his interviews with his helmet on and his face hidden by a protective visor. He signed a rookie contract that, according to most, severely short-changed his market worth. Early on, he absorbed negative attention by posing in a wedding dress for the cover of ESPN The Magazine. Soon after he was traded from the New Orleans Saints to the Miami Dolphins, he was arrested for apparently nothing more than a DWB (driving while black).

Throughout all of this, sportswriters have always made mention of the fact that Williams is shy and soft-spoken, but have seldom entertained the possibility that he might be unhappy with everything going on around him. It would have been too contrary to the mainstream, everyday image of superstar Black athletes -- rich, headstrong, flashy, sexy, quotable, and just happy to be there. He was never promoted as a role model, good or bad. For the most part, all that anyone ever asked him to do was perform on the field. And he did. But almost everyone overlooked the possibility that his miscues and setbacks came from a soul that was uncomfortable with who he had become and what he was about.

Maybe football would have been okay for Ricky if he could have just done his job on the field and then lived an anonymous, simple life. But part of the job of a superstar athlete is talking to the media and maintaining an image. It's possible that sports reporters and commentators saw Ricky Williams as a gold mine of material for print and video when he first arrived on the football scene. He was a Heisman Trophy winner, yet he always had a different vibe about him -- dreadlocks and a subdued demeanor. Over time, he became a difficult interview, in part because of his shyness, and in part because he never seemed interested in using the media to promote himself. Finally, Williams walked away from sports without any fanfare, and without a "good" story that could be told and, importantly, sold.

Maybe the media and the fans made Williams uncomfortable, or even scared. Maybe he just never thought that it was his job as a football player to be entertaining away from the football field. Maybe he hoped that he would secretly be allowed to get high in exchange for performing on the field. When his positive test for marijuana became public, Ricky must have decided that he was giving more to the game than he was getting out of it.

Williams claimed that smoking weed helped him deal with his shyness. The psychiatric community calls it "self-medication." Forty-eight states and professional football call it illegal. So rather than try to do a dance around the rules, he just quit playing the game. Williams walked away from football. He publicly rejected the dollars and prestige of being a football superstar so that he could avoid being drug-tested and instead pursue a career and a life that seem to make him feel better about himself.

Not so fast, Ricky.

Recently, in a nationally televised interview with 60 Minutes, Williams attempted to share with the public his reasons for this radical change in lifestyle and career. It was his attempt to explain a philosophical endeavor that not too many people understood. But why should he have to explain himself? Because by abandoning pro football, Williams did something that was more or less out of bounds in a society where moneymaking is the driving ethos and the universal goal. He turned his back on wealth and fame -- something that we're all supposed to want. He chose to leave behind a life of TV cameras, expensive cars, estate homes, and entourages -- things that, to most of us, make up the American dream. He rejected the choices that everyone else around him made and that a lot of us would make if we had the chance. Very few people, if anyone, seem to be comfortable with that -- except for Ricky.

It might seem arrogant or stupid for someone with so much athletic talent to walk away from football. Teammates have said that he sold them out. But playing football was Ricky Williams' job. People leave jobs (and coworkers) all the time. Should Williams have to stay with his job, even if he's unhappy? Most people who are unhappy with their jobs and who have other options wind up moving on to something else. You hear about lawyers who pack it in and open up their own restaurant, or software engineers who get tired of the rat race and retire early to life on a sport fishing boat. So why can't a running back start a new life in the growing (soon to be, anyway -- just look at all of the free publicity) field of Ayurveda?

One of my college professors -- a wise woman -- once said, "I don't think we need everyone to be heroes, or to save the race. Just try not to be a liability." Ricky Williams isn't a liability, but for some reason, he's been cast as one. Think about all of the negative images of Black athletes that are out there in society (no need to call anyone out by name -- take your pick). Contrast those images with that of a soft-spoken, bearded Ricky Williams doing Yoga or learning massage therapy techniques.

Every few weeks in the news, there seems to be a new story about Black athletes involved in crimes, or cheating on their wives, or using drugs, or who get suspended for leaving the bench during a fight. Ricky Williams has never been in trouble with the law; he finished college, and was one of the best running backs in the game. But Ricky is criticized because he relies on herb to deal with his shyness and to stay centered. He is ridiculed because he tried living in a tent, reading by lamplight. Why? For most of us that wouldn't be the move to make. But it's his gig. What does it say about us if we can't accept him for choosing to walk a different way? What happened to "don't hate, congratulate?"

Let it be said that if you can command a multimillion-dollar salary on the open market for your skills, then you should be free to go out and get paid -- nothing wrong with that. That is what is done in professional sports. But part of the trickle-down effect of that system is that many (not all, but many) superstar athletes promote the blinged-out lifestyle that most of us envy, but will never attain. Many of us -- especially young Black men looking to rise above -- try to achieve that status without a reality check about the one-in-a-million talent, years of putting in work, and lucky breaks that go into getting there.

Our society relates to Black athletes as commodities in high demand. Professional sports invest in their skills and physical capabilities. The superstars who have personality to match their athletic talent can be marketed as heroes and role models. But the athletes and the service that they perform are a product. They are for the society to consume and enjoy and be jealous of and idolize, all at the same time. Black athletes are supposed to be content with the ownership and sale of their skills and physical capabilities. They're supposed to be too well paid to care or complain. All they have to do is follow a few rules, go where they're sent, and do and say what they're instructed to do and say. A pretty good deal. It wouldn't be fair to criticize anyone who decided to accept it. So why is it fair to single out someone who decided to turn it down?

Maybe if more sportswriters were praising Ricky for his individuality, it would make a difference in the way he is perceived. Maybe if more Black leaders and spokespeople stood up for Ricky and showed him some love, then he would be seen as a positive example of a Black man determining his own future. Maybe if the public wasn't so willing to accept the narrow definition of "success," then Ricky would have felt free to do what he wanted earlier in his career. Maybe if his team wasn't so terrible this year, they wouldn't have needed him to stick around.

Only a few people really know Ricky Williams. It is hard to say if he's happy, or if his happiness will last. But he seems happier now. He seems less afraid of the spotlight now. He seems to be at peace now. It might be holistic healing, it might be marijuana, or it might be freedom away from the rigors of pro football life. Either way, it takes a lot of courage and self-awareness to do what he did. It's kind of like going "all in" at a high-stakes poker table. Except that Ricky went "all out." In one fluid motion, he took what was left of his stack, got up from the table, and went out the door.

Ricky Williams' self-proclaimed hero is Bob Marley. His song, Exodus, says it all for Ricky: "Open your eyes and look within. Are you satisfied with the life you're living?" A few years from now, Williams could be a practitioner of Ayurveda, completely in tune with the world around him, thriving in his own life and naturally healing others' minds and bodies. Or, he might regret that he passed on the second half of his football career. He might need money. He might miss playing ball. But right now, Williams is sacrificing football as a vocation. Instead he is studying, exploring, and.smoking. He has eschewed the external pressures and trappings of the high profile, highly paid athlete because, as he says, those aren't his priorities. And, he is trying to do the right thing -- not for a sports franchise, his fans, or reporters looking for a colorful story. Right now, to the consternation of his critics, he is trying to do the right thing for Ricky.





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