Imagine that you’ve just been drafted by an NFL team to play football for a living after sacrificing your body, brain and every waking hour in pursuit of such an outcome — an outcome that, statistically speaking at least, is almost impossible. Imagine the high as your name is called by the NFL commissioner, your family crying tears of joy and your new team’s fans placing all of their hopes and dreams on you. Next, imagine your eagerness to talk to your new teammates — almost all of whom you’ve grown up watching and wanting to emulate in some way.
Now imagine that the teammate designed to be your mentor doesn’t return your introductory text. A day later you call him. Still no response. Disheartened, you try a few more times. Nada.
This is the situation 21-year-old quarterback Lamar Jackson recently found himself. The 32nd overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft was taken by the Baltimore Ravens, presumably to back up incumbent QB Joe Flacco. Flacco, 33, won the Super Bowl in 2013 and was rewarded with a six-year, $121 million contract for his efforts. He’s a veteran player and one of the longest-tenured Ravens on the roster… but apparently not someone who wants to talk to a rookie competitor.
Last week, Jackson was asked by reporters if he had spoken to Flacco. “No, I haven’t. No, I haven’t,” he offered in quick succession.
That statement, and the fact that Jackson had sent unreturned texts and calls to Flacco, unleashed a wave of scorn on the internet. Here was an older player, one who had probably made a hundred statements about the importance of teamwork and his drive to support his fellow Ravens, choosing to cold-shoulder a 21-year-old who needs help to acclimate to the NFL.
The funny thing is, this passive-aggressive tap dance is as old as the NFL itself — and almost a fixture at the quarterback position. In fact, Flacco’s icy response might be eclipsed by the far more verbal pettiness of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who expressed to a local radio station his displeasure that a rookie quarterback, Mason Rudolph, was taken in the third round of this year’s draft. “I thought that maybe in the third round … you can get some really good football players that can help this team win now,” Roethlisberger said.
Later, he added, “If he asks me a question, I might just have to point to the playbook.”
While being standoffish to a guy who’s trying to take your job is an understandable defense mechanism, for Terry Burnham, an economist and professor at Chapman University, the actions of Flacco and Roethlisberger are a continuation of a general workplace trend. As proof, he points to a study he published in March that concluded men are more willing than women to punish their peers to obtain higher rank as well as willing to punish peers who have done nothing wrong.
For it, Burnham set up an experiment in which four participants were each given their own pot of tokens and a choice: Putting tokens into a shared pool multiplied their value by 1.6 times, divided evenly between the participants. Under this premise, men and women contributed to the “team” at roughly equal rates. But repeating the exercise with cash payoffs for a higher “rank” (based on each individual’s number of tokens) led to men “punishing” the group’s welfare at twice the rate of women participants.
“In almost every area of life, you’re rewarded for relative performance, and that’s especially true in sports,” Burnham says. “Does Tom Brady really want to improve the New England Patriots, or just ensure his own good outcome? Some people believe in the theory of altruistic punishment, that punishment is motivated by a desire to make the world or group better. I don’t agree.”
Brady, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, was indicted in a January ESPN deep-dive that re-asserted the widely held notion that “Brady is famously unhelpful to his backups,” most recently to 2014 second-round draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo. One anecdote in the ESPN piece involved Garoppolo making an appointment to treat an injury at the TB12 Sports Therapy Center, the Brady-backed facility led by (oft-controversial) trainer Alex Guerrero. When he arrived, all he found was locked doors and no employees; phone calls to multiple trainers went unanswered. Garoppolo ended up just seeing team trainers that night instead, and he was only seen by Guerrero two weeks later, “after a high-ranking Patriots staffer called TB12 to inquire” what the problem was.
The past decades of the NFL hold a number of rivalries between understudies and veteran QBs. Brett Favre, the Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer, was known for his ruthlessness toward a young Aaron Rodgers, drafted out of Cal in the first round of the 2005 draft. “My contract doesn’t say I have to get Aaron Rodgers ready to play,” Favre told ESPN at the time. “Now hopefully he watches me and gets something from that.” But the 35-year-old vet did more than just refuse advice; he actively took a disliking to his successor, and Favre’s cadre of longtime team friends worked hard to humiliate Rodgers, passing around insulting edited photos of the understudy and playing disruptive pranks on him at every turn.
Research suggests that this type of behavior is a result of heightened male narcissism. A groundbreaking 2015 survey from the University of Buffalo found that men are more likely than women to exploit others and feel entitled to privileges. Another major difference was found in leadership factors, with men exhibiting more assertiveness and desire for power despite both genders being equally prone to vanity and self-absorption in general. The study suggested that men accepting certain gender roles could be a major motivator for such narcissistic behavior.
“We teach guys to be number one, to be the best. It doesn’t matter what venue it is, it’s a universal thing we teach boys. And if we look at pro athletes and especially the guys who are team leaders, like a quarterback, they got there by being uber-competitive,” says Andrew Smiler, therapist and author of the textbook The Masculine Self. “Now you’re gonna take that guy and say, ‘Hey, you’re 36, we need you to chill’? That’s not going to work.”
When veteran quarterbacks are kind and accepting to backups, it’s often because their status as the starter is set in stone. Flacco reportedly had an excellent partnership with young backup Tyrod Taylor for years before the latter was traded to the Buffalo Bills. And Favre’s biggest sidekick in the abuse of Rodgers was third-stringer Craig Nall: “The two Southern boys talked about Rodgers like two bullies mocking a math club nerd,” author Jeff Pearlman wrote in his biography of Favre, Gunslinger.
So what’s an NFL general manager — or, if we consider the parallels, your manager at work — supposed to do about this? Clearly, a starting quarterback has a lot of wisdom to impart on a younger successor, information that could help the team continue to win games in the future.
Burnham notes that there are organizational ways to suppress the thirst for personal dominance, citing teams like the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, which has demonstrated a lack of “divas” over the years. “We don’t want this study to say that human nature is fixed, but that we need to be smart about how to build institutions that can achieve good goals while fighting the negative human desire to hurt others for your own gain,” Burnham says.
Such an effort might involve creating incentives for a veteran to mentor a younger employee, or using that mentorship as a way to signify that the end of one role (say, starting quarterback) isn’t the end of the veteran’s importance within the organization, but rather a path to take on another role (like coaching in football), Smiler says. “Some of the research on what happens to men after they retire actually parallels this sports example,” he adds. “Guys who can’t imagine what they can do after retirement, and don’t have a plan to step into volunteering or hobbies, they fare worse. They either get very depressed or try to go back to work, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.”
Flacco could stay with the Ravens, but league whispers suggest that he’s probably going to end up as a free agent, signing with a different team after this upcoming season. Whether or not he succeeds with that team is almost moot, considering that Flacco almost certainly believes he’s still elite. The bigger issue for the Ravens, then, is figuring out how to ensure that Flacco’s belief doesn’t fuck with Lamar Jackson’s development.
Or better yet, his young head.