Editor’s Note: Last spring Points intern Alex Tepperman published this thoughtful piece on Ryan Leaf’s ignominious rise and fall. With Leaf’s name once again in the news as details of his sentencing are made public, we’re honoring the summer tradition of re-runs and putting this back on the top of the page.
On Friday, March 30, the name “Ryan Leaf” was the sixth most popular trending topic on Twitter. Most Points readers will have little or no familiarity with Ryan Leaf, a retired pro footballer whose moment of glory in the national spotlight came and went over a decade ago. This is to be expected, as even sports fans have little reason to hold on to their memories of Leaf’s four disastrous seasons in the NFL. So why was “Ryan Leaf” a trending topic? Because, for a relatively large proportion of the American public, Mr. Leaf is synecdoche of two wildly different obsessions, two different opportunities to hand-wring and chide and call for “personal responsibility.” Ryan Leaf is a nexus – one of many nexuses, actually – at which America’s national obsessions with drug addiction and athletic performance meet.
The story of Ryan Leaf’s rise and fall is well known to serious football fans, oft-repeated though unclear in its message. In 1996 and 1997, Leaf was the star quarterback for the Washington State Cougars, a team he took to the prestigious Rose Bowl. At the end of the 1997 season, he finished third in Heisman Award voting for best college football player in the nation and, prior to the 1998 NFL Draft, was deemed by most prognosticators a “can’t miss” pro-ready talent. NFL fans and pundits heatedly debated for months whether Leaf or University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning should be the first pick taken in the draft, an argument that seems silly in retrospect.
On draft day, the Indianapolis Colts took Manning with the first pick and the San Diego Chargers, holding the second pick, gladly scooped up Leaf. The San Diego front office signed leaf to a four year contract for $31.25 million, at which point Leaf famously remarked “I’m looking forward to a 15-year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl, and a parade through downtown San Diego.” Needless to say, Leaf’s moxie did not go down well with either the conservative NFL establishment or skeptical fans, two groups that have come to expect mawkish false modesty from their sports idols. To that end, many fans and journalists watched with a certain contentment as Leaf flailed over the next four seasons, washing out of pro football by 2001. His career ended after just 25 unremarkable games, whereas Manning became one of the most successful, admired, and heavily marketed players in NFL history.
Leaf’s shortcomings as a professional quarterback were often – and continue to be – phrased in the language of moral failure. Rarely was Leaf’s inability to thrive in the NFL considered a case of scouts misreading his abilities, or a sign that he was talented enough to succeed at one level but not the next. Rather, Leaf was seen as too simple or lazy to learn how to raise his game to the next level, or too hubristic and entitled to accept coaching. Some of these critiques were understandable, as Leaf acted out in ways that people would be more willing to brush off as “fiery” if he was more successful. Because he wasn’t successful, though, when Leaf acted like a jerk, players, managers, and fans savored his fall. Leaf’s persistent critics eagerly followed the ex-prospect’s descent into anonymity, tracing him to Canyon, Texas where he started volunteering as the quarterback’s coach at West Texas A&M University, a job he held without incident for two years.
In 2008, Leaf resigned from his position after being caught asking players for prescription painkiller fixes. Six months later, it came to light that Leaf, before his resignation, had broken into an injured A&M player’s room in search of Hydrocodone, leading to his arrest and ultimate conviction on seven counts of fraudulently obtaining drugs and delivery of a simulated controlled substance. He received a suspended sentence and ten years of probation. By this time, Leaf was clearly a beaten man, forced to simultaneously deal with deep unpopularity amongst football fans and management, a public image of being rude and unemployable, a benign brain tumor threatening his brain stem, and the unwanted title, bestowed by no less an authority than the NFL itself, of being the “Biggest Bust” in league history. Given all of these barriers to progress, Leaf’s enormous trouble fighting an addiction to painkillers is understandable. Young people in similar positions – those who feel they have no job, no friends, no future, and deep emotional and psychological wounds – are often known to take their own lives. It is much to Leaf’s credit that chose to keep going, even if his demons were not behind him.
Knowing this back story, one can better appreciate the importance of Ryan Leaf’s Twitter appearance on March 30, the day when news broke of Leaf’s latest encounter with drugs and the law. That day, police in Leaf’s home of Great Falls, Montana placed the former Charger under arrest for two felonies, burglary and criminal possession of a dangerous drug, while Leaf visited his home state to promote his autobiography, 596 Switch. His arrest was the product of a half-year investigation by the Central Montana Drug Task Force who caught Leaf in possession of Oxycodone pills, the same drug that had led Leaf to commit burglary while at West Texas A&M.
Leaf’s story is moderately interesting, though the fact he has fallen off the proverbial wagon does not adequately account for why thousands of Tweeters would feel compelled to discuss his most recent run-in with the law. To understand this seeming anomaly, one must appreciate that when people discuss Ryan Leaf, they seem often to be discussing a “type” more than an actual person. Leaf represents for many Americans two sorts of people who deserve scorn. The first is the overpaid, coddled professional athlete who doesn’t take his job seriously, doesn’t “respect the sport,” and doesn’t appreciate his God-given talents. The second is the drug addict who gets chance after chance to get clean but is too emotionally weak, unprincipled, and cowardly to get his act together. Individually, both types provide the basic elements for some powerful schadenfreude. Together, they can make you a cautionary tale. Ryan Leaf reemerged on Twitter not because of any innate importance to his story, but because of the opportunity it presented the commentariat to moralize.
The Leaf criticisms have indeed come hard and fast in the last week, as pundits have eagerly weighed in on his presumed moral failings. At the popular blog Uproxx, writer “Burnsy” posted the article “Ryan Leaf Still Ain’t Doing So Hot,” in which he explained that “Last week we paid a little tribute to some of the biggest morons and disappointments in sports history… and it would have been a huge oversight to exclude former No. 2 NFL draft pick Ryan Leaf, whose career can best be compared to a colossal dust fart.” For their part, the famously juvenile and reactionary writers at Bleacher Report featured Leaf in a slideshow entitled “25 Athletes Who Have Absolutely Lost Their Minds.” In this piece, they explained “in Ryan Leaf’s defense, it cannot be easy to be Ryan Leaf. Yes, he has brought this all on himself, but he’s still a human being (I think?).” The contention that Ryan Leaf “brought this all on himself” may be the quintessence of the recent Leaf-bashing, a statement designed to suggest that, given Leaf’s life, body, experiences, opportunities, and trials, any reasonably “normal” person could have made it work and that it takes a special type of idiot to screw it up.
The ESPN.com article “Ryan Leaf Arrested Again in Montana” has received over 5,000 reader comments in the last week, with most taking a relatively simple line:
- hard-hittr187: f*ck all this BS about constant pain… stop coddling drug users… period.
- EatLightning13: Once a loser always a loser.
- GQPublic: Lock this loser up for a long time. He is a disgrace to WSU and to humanity.
To oh-so-many commenters, Leaf’s drug use is all the more galling given his failures as a professional footballer, despite the fact his addiction to Oxycodone and his football playing have no demonstrable relation. And while it may be unfair to make any generalizations based on the professed views of anonymous contributors, such statements seem very much in keeping with the views not only of the writers at Uproxx and Bleacher Report, but also with the hyper-punitive (and often hypocritical) ethos of the War on Drugs itself.
One vividly sees in Leaf’s case an extraordinary hypocrisy when it comes to dealing with drug addiction and athletes. Leaf’s public shaming is reminiscent of that levied upon JaMarcus Russell, another washed-up prospect who, after being arrested for possessing excessive quantities of purple cough syrup with codeine (“purple drank” or “sizzurp,” as its also known) was casually mocked by Deadspin and its commentariat. Alternately, the once-beloved quarterback Brett Favre faced his own addiction to painkillers in the mid-1990s, only to find journalists, fans, and the league itself more than accommodating. Reporting on Favre’s addiction, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King tellingly noted that “Favre is the newest star in the NFL galaxy, a fresh-faced 26-year-old savior with Bradshawesque leadership skills, charisma and Deep South backwoods likability…He’s probably the most significant player in football, both for what he has done on the field at a young age and for what he means to the league long-term.” The conclusion is obvious: many – perhaps the majority – fans and journalists see drug addiction for players like Leaf and Russell as a joke, a sign of personal weakness, or karmic retribution for their on-field failures. For superstars like Brett Favre – people who benefit from a “halo effect” that leads adorers to dismiss personal failings – drug addiction is an obstacle to be hurdled and shown as an ultimate sign of personal strength and fortitude.
Ryan Leaf, whatever his personal failings, has been turned into something bigger than himself. Objectively, he is a man of little global consequence who is struggling with some very severe personal problems. True, he was once rich and famous for playing football, but this is no longer the case. Instead, Ryan Leaf’s life has been turned into a morality tale about “personal responsibility” and the dangers of arrogance that can only further distort the widely-held belief in the public that drug addiction exists divorced from life experiences, body chemistry, and peer groups. It holds that drug addiction is a sign of weakness, and that weakness must be mocked (unless, like Brett Favre, you’re good enough in something else to prove your strength). Loser in football, loser in life. It can’t be any more complicated than that.