Jan. 3, 2013; Glendale, AZ, USA: Oregon Ducks tight end Colt Lyerla (15) runs the ball in the second quarter against the Kansas State Wildcats during the 2013 Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On Colt Lyerla and discussing his arrest

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By now you’ve probably seen the news about former Oregon Ducks tight end Colt Lyerla being arrested for the possession of cocaine. A quick Google search will reveal his mugshot and plenty of Hot Takes regarding how the arrest may impact his draft status. Scroll down to the comments on those articles and you’ll see wild assumptions about his character, derisive mocking from anonymous strangers, and people just plain ol’ befuddled as to why he couldn’t just “get it together.”

As upsetting as the news about Lyerla is, the response to it is even more disheartening.

Doing cocaine in your car doesn’t make you a terrible person. It doesn’t mean you lack appreciation for your opportunities, nor does it mean that you value drugs over everything else in life. Those character judgements — and you’ll see them repeated as fact from people with no personal connection to Lyerla — stem from a culture where drugs are stigmatized and those who use them are thought of as barely above worthless. And those judgements are augmented when the person in question is an athlete, reduced to little more than his occupation and stats and potential. We see someone who could earn millions of dollars playing a game and wonder how that person could jeopardize such a glorious opportunity, one that we as fans on our couches would kill for. It’s easy to see someone like Lyerla as an Example, a Cautionary Tale, Another Spoiled Athlete, a Risky Draft Pick, a Guy Who Just Didn’t Care Enough.

It’s a lot more difficult to see Lyerla as a person.

Perhaps Lyerla would be wise to seek some sort of professional help. Perhaps he’s battling demons that the promise of an NFL salary can’t wipe away. Perhaps he’s just young and confused and in need of support. These musings are barely more provable than the the aforementioned hypothesizing about the flaws in his personal character — although his background certainly suggests the type of less-than-easy upbringing that can contribute to lifelong struggles —  but at least they move the conversation more towards Lyerla the Person and not Lyerla the Commodity.

None of us bloggers or Tweeters or comment-section denizens know what it’s like to be Colt Lyerla. We know about the game he plays and his abilities at that game, but that’s about all. As difficult, bordering on impossible, as it is to understand and empathize with the seemingly irrational choices another person might make, it’s even more difficult to do so when that person is barely a person to us at all.

There is, of course, a small conundrum here. If our way of “knowing” Colt Lyerla is rooted purely in the fact that he plays football, then isn’t it appropriate to discuss his arrest only in relation to how it could impact his football future? Wouldn’t considering his background or his psychology be out of bounds for us as fans? Shouldn’t we just, as they say, stick to sports?

While it seems like the answers should be “yes,” the problem is that his arrest isn’t being discussed that way. Simply put, many people don’t want to think about Colt Lyerla as a complete person if doing so is meant to create empathy. No, instead people want to selectively pick the aspects of his personality that confirm their beliefs about him as a screw-up, an addict, an ungrateful jock. The conversation is ostensibly about his future on the football field, sure, but the way that conversation is conducted allows for off-the-field aspects of him, especially aspects that are unsavory or disagreeable, to seep into the discussion, to serve as justifications for on-the-field prognostications. To talk this way is natural, but that doesn’t make it unavoidable. We possess the agency to choose how the situation is discussed.

All of this isn’t to say that Colt Lyerla somehow shouldn’t be held responsible, that he should be treated with sympathetic kiddie-gloves while other athletes are forced under the wrathful microscope of society. This isn’t about comparing his crimes and his poor choices to other athletes and their crimes/poor choices, and then calculating who deserves to be judged more harshly. What this is about is taking a moment to step outside ourselves as fans and examine the way in which we dissect the athletes we supposedly love. It’s about not simply relying on the old standards and practices simply because they’re profitable, or ingrained, or able to boost our feelings of moral superiority.

If you’re job is to make mock drafts, then Lyerla probably means something specific and narrow to you. If you love the Oregon Ducks, then Lyerla probably means something specific and narrow to you. But what’s important to remember is that Colt Lyerla is an individual outside of our collective observation. He is not some metaphysical entity that can only be brought into existence by those critiquing him. His identity is not just an amalgamation of our words and so-called insights even though said words and insights are what fill the screen when you search his name.

It’s unfortunate how easily we lose sight of that.

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