Chicago’s Jay Cutler stood forlornly on the sideline Sunday afternoon, watching his Bears and a third-string replacement named Caleb Hanie lose, 21-14, to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. The criticism about Cutler’s supposed lack of toughness – he left the game with a knee injury – sent a dangerous mixed-message to the public, especially to kids who take their cues from their favorite pro athletes.
These days, NFL players are supposedly concerned about safety. The league wants to expand the regular season to 18 games, but the players’ union rejects that proposal because those two extra games mean more chances to sustain a career-threatening, life-altering injury. Mounting evidence that head collisions in football can cause devastating brain damage has made players more aware of football’s risks. The union is asking the NFL to provide better health benefits for both active and retired players.
(More on TIME.com: See how football affects players’ brains)
An emphasis on safety is legitimate, and vitally important. If the pros are more aware of football’s health risks, kids in Pop Warner will play smarter too. So the angry reaction from current and former players regarding Cutler’s exit from the game could not be more hypocritical, and potentially harmful. (The Packers will play the Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat the New York Jets in the AFC title game, in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6). On Twitter, Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett wrote: “If I’m on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes into the locker room.” Maurice Jones-Drew, running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars, wrote: “All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee … I played a whole season on one.” Hall of Fame loudmouth Deion Sanders chimed in: “Im telling u in the playoffs u must drag me off the field.”
If only Cutler had collapsed to the ground, and punched a doctor on his way to the locker room. Only one person knows how much pain he could tolerate, and that’s Cutler himself. According to the Bears, doctors pulled him out of the game. Doc’s orders should end the story. Sure, Cutler did himself no favors by playing poorly before leaving the game early in the second half: he completed 6 of 14 passes, for 80 yards, and threw an interception. The Bears trailed 14-0. With such an ugly stat line, it looked like he took the easy way out. Cutler walked around the sideline with a mopey look on his face. What, should he have been all smiles? And just because he can gimp around a bit, that means he was fit to return to a game where 300-pound men were trying to break his other knee? If he stayed in the locker room, of course, the same critics would question whether he truly cared about his teammates.
Yes, Cutler hadn’t suffered a concussion. But so what? Knee injuries are no picnic, and immobility can increase the risk of getting crushed in the head. If NFL players truly want to make your game safer, football’s warrior ethos must tone down. Hammering Cutler on Twitter, without any real idea of what his body was telling him, is just tone deaf.
(More on TIME.com: See TIME’s cover story on safety in football)