Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
It’s not often in our society that adults take responsibility when their words and actions hurt others. So when they do, it deserves some elevated attention, to the point that self-responsibility becomes boring and normalized.
So the stage was set when Ryan Clark, a 13-year NFL veteran, appeared on an episode of NFL Live and joked about Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Clark said it looked like Tua skipped the gym this offseason and that “he might spend a lot of time in the tattoo parlor. He was not at the dinner table eating what the nutritionist had advised.”
It was clear Tagovailoa took exception to Clark’s comments. In a public press conference, Tagovailoa said, “You think I wanted to build all this muscle? Like, to some extent I wanted to be a little lighter. There’s a mixture of things that people don’t understand, that people don’t know about, that are talked about that go behind the scenes.” After last season’s head injuries (covered here in The Coach’s Box), Tagovailoa had to bulk up with muscle to try and better protect himself. So Clark’s comments were clearly hurtful to Tua as he summed up his response by saying, “So, you know, I’d appreciate it if you kept my name out your mouth. That’s what I’d say.”
With that type of response, it would’ve been easy, given American football’s ego-filled, bravado-driven sport, for an accomplished veteran like Clark to clap back and protect his ego. Instead, Clark did the opposite: he apologized. And he didn’t just extend a standard-issued apology to Tua, either. It was a heartfelt public acknowledgment of how he used his words to hurt someone else. (If you haven’t already, I encourage you to watch Clark’s full apology.)
Ryan Clark’s self-accountability is another area where sports can teach or remind us how to foster compassion in a competition-driven world. His apology accomplishes this in four specific ways.
First, he acknowledges what he said. He neither shies away from nor tones down his words. Nor does he try to excuse what he said even as he acknowledges his intent:
It was never my intention to question Tua’s work ethic or commitment to the game but I’m also aware enough to know that intent doesn’t always match impact. How something is presented isn’t always how it’s received by everyone. I do my best to be honest when executing my job as well as being honest when I fall short. I fell short on Monday and, for that, I genuinely apologize.
John says if we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive (1 John 1:9). Too often, we excuse our hurtful words or actions with our intent. But our intent is not a balm for the wounds we create in someone else; they’re usually just a stinging reminder that “your feelings don’t matter as much as my intent, so get over it.” Which isn’t love. And it’s not Christ-like. We have a God and savior who identifies and sympathizes with our pain (Hebrews 4:15). So, accepting our fault in the creation of someone else’s hurt is a great way to mirror the love of God.
Second, Clark publicly extends an apology—but not simply to Tua. He also asks Tua’s family and supporters to forgive him, realizing that comments about one person can also hurt those in that person’s circle.
A public figure like Tua Tagovailoa is not immune to public scrutiny, especially when he isn’t performing up to the standards expected of an NFL starting quarterback. But when hurtful comments and critiques are made about a star like Tua, they affect everyone in his circle who supports and depends on him. Hurtful public comments don’t just hurt one person; they hurt a community. So, the extension of Clark’s apology to Tua’s circle and fan base is a mature and clear-sighted understanding of the impact of his words.
Third, Clark revisits the purpose of his job. “When I decided to do TV I had 2 main priorities,” he wrote. “1. Respect all NFL players, coaches, executives and staff members. 2. Earn and keep the respect of those very same people.” Revisiting the purpose behind what we do can clarify where ego clouds our judgment. For Christians, this is imperative as we remember how God approached us in our sins.
We’re not here to be “right” and jerks regardless of our intent. We’re here to show the love of God through Jesus to a world hurt with pride.
Finally, Clark asks for a private conversation to ask for forgiveness. Leaving the invitation open-ended like this allows space for the hurt to deal with their pain. An egotistical mindset demands the offended accept an apology and extend forgiveness on the offender’s timeline. But Clark doesn’t require that. Instead, Clark said that he hopes to hear from Tua soon so he can apologize for what he now considers “a bad joke.”
“But for me,” Ryan continues, “it’s been a lesson. I’ll be better.” In this way, Clark acknowledges his sin toward Tagovailoa and sets himself up to be held publicly accountable for his words.
If we want our kids to learn from sports how to be people who are responsible, hard-working, and accountable, then we need look no further than Ryan Clark’s example.
Clark could’ve ignored Tua Tagovailoa’s comments and waited for the controversy to wash out and subside. He could’ve responded with ego and a listing of his accomplishments to justify his comments. Instead, Ryan Clark chose the Christ-like, people-centered response of love, humility, and compassion.
Clark’s example is a lesson from which our politicians, bosses, neighbors, kids, and athletes can learn. It’s a lesson in true self-accountability and forgiveness for all of us.