Yesterday it was reported that former Nebraska Cornhusker and NFL running back Lawrence Phillips is suspected in the death of his cellmate 37-year-old Damian Soward, who was found unresponsive in his cell on Saturday at Kern Valley State Prison and was pronounced dead the next day. On the surface, this may appear as simply another tumor on the character of a man whose best days are decades in the past. However, from our perspective, his shortcomings are indicative of another phenomenon.
One in which the needs of an individual are forsaken for the so-called greater good of a collective. The first collective that we know of was the Nebraska Cornhuskers football program. When he was recruited to play at Nebraska out of Baldwin Park, California, Phillips was living in the latest of several foster home. Though there are plenty of great Americans who grew up in the system, it simply makes sense to investigate any perspective recruit's home environment. So, I'm assuming they did and simply ignored what they found. Coaches say they're giving kids a chance but are doing nothing of the sort. It's all about wins and losses.
Phillips was first arrested for domestic violence against his then-girlfriend and former Cornhuskers women’s basketball player after a game at Michigan State. He pled no contest to the charges and was suspended for six games but Coach Tom Osborne refused to bow to media pressure and started him in the national championship game versus Florida. It appeared as if he rewarded his college coach for having faith in him by rushing for 165 yards and two touchdowns in a blowout win. So, Nebraska had its national championship and, as far as the business of Cornhusker football was concerned, the right decision was made in not disciplining Phillips any further.
At the behest of his former college coach, Phillips entered the NFL draft after the national championship and was selected sixth overall by the St. Louis Rams. They were so convinced that Phillips was the answer for them that they traded future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis. However, his documented issues with authority and ongoing lack of emotional maturity would land him in free agency after only two seasons in St. Louis.
He was picked up by the Miami Dolphins but was waived after pleading no contest to assault on a female. They say that if an occurrence happens once it is an anomaly, twice it is a coincidence. But three times is most certainly a pattern and Phillips would continue that grim pattern without impunity. He played professional football in Europe, where he was a star, and the CFL as well, but was cut from the latter league after arguing with a coach.
In 2005, Lawrence Phillips was arrested for assault after running his car into three teenagers over a pick-up football game. He was also wanted for domestic abuse at the time of his arrest.
The following year, Lawrence stood trial for assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was also convicted for assaulting his girlfriend and was sentenced to 31 years in prison.
Issues with women, issues with authority and issues with his temper, all of which certainly manifested themselves since he was a child, were ignored because he could run fast.
Now, a man is dead and we sit and lament what could have been for a man that many, many people would have gladly traded places with 15 years ago. From foster homes, to college fame, to NFL flame out, to accused murderer, Phillips’ anger issues, problems with women and inability to accept criticism of any kind had to have been apparent to anyone who was around him for any discernable amount of time.
If he weren’t such a talented athlete there’s no doubt he would have been institutionalized decades ago. But, since he could run really fast, we all swept his transgressions under the rug. Recruiters, coaches, teammates, fans, journalists, all of us.
As a collective society of football lovers, we call him a dummy, a waste and a fool as the investigation into the death of Soward continues. However, we’re the dummies who made excuses for him because of his physical gifts. We’re the ones who tossed him aside without offering him any counseling options, and we football fans are just as culpable in the death of Damian Soward as Phillips.
The mental health crisis in America has long been hiding in plain sight within the friendly confines of high-level collegiate and professional football, but the ongoing domestic violence issues that have taken place in the National Football League in the past five years are indicative of the same mindset that allowed Phillips’ significant mental health issues to go unchecked.