Riding their storms out: Chris Culliver and Jeremy Lin

Riding their storms out: Chris Culliver and Jeremy Lin
February 15, 2013, 4:45 pm
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Rockets' PG Jeremy Lin and 49ers' CB Chris Culliver both know what it's like to be the focus of media attention, but for very different reasons. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

They’re both 24-years-old. They’ve both been pro athletes in the Bay Area.  They both wear red during their “day jobs.”  In many respects, that’s where many might think the similarities between the 49ers' Chris Culliver and the Rockets' Jeremy Lin would end.  Well, they had one other thing in common this week: me.  I talked with them both.

Child's play after the storm

Culliver is the cornerback who let comedian Artie Lange know during Super Bowl week that he—Culliver—would not accept a gay teammate.  As we now know, that led to a firestorm…and that led to an apology…and that led—many have argued—to a disastrous performance in Super Bowl XLVII by Chris Culliver.  Eight days later, the now controversial 49er was walking through the doors of the Ronald McDonald House in Palo Alto to spend a few moments with an afflicted five-year-old and his appreciative Mom.

The initial meeting between Culliver and young Garrett Saenz was understandably awkward. After giving the youngster a bag of 49er’s goodies, there was a brief uncomfortable silence.  Like many of us—including me—Culliver seemed to struggle with how to talk with a child on a level that the child could understand and would find engaging.  And, of course, young Garrett was shy.  But Garrett’s Mom had written out some questions ahead of time for her son to ask the football star. As I am writing this from memory days later, I don’t want to quote the questions, but I can tell you they were along the lines of “What do you like to eat?”  and “What do you do when you’re not playing football?”  Those questions led to answers…which led to smiles…which led to Culliver pulling out a kid sized sponge-rubber football and playing a little backyard game of catch with his new pal…which led to laughs.

Was this all a publicity stunt cooked up by Culliver and his advisors to help him clean up his image?  According to Culliver, no.  He said he had been pursuing this meeting for a couple of months.  Whatever his intentions, the fact is Culliver gave a real lift to a boy who’s been facing the all-to-real challenge of beating leukemia.

I also talked with Culliver throughout his visit, both off-camera and—to the great concern of his two advisors present—on-camera.  As you might expect, he was not enthusiastic about revisiting his “gay teammate” answers that—rightfully so—got him in trouble during Super Bowl week.  On-camera, he steered most of my questions about the New Orleans incident back to his visit with Garrett and to similar projects he has planned in the future.

“You’ll see a lot of things that come out,” Culliver said in reference to his plans for future community outreach work. “Hopefully, people will have a different judgment about me.”

My judgment about Chris Culliver after spending a few moments with him:  He’s probably a pretty decent fella who said a very indecent thing. 

Why do I think he’s probably pretty decent?  For one, many athletes these days—though far from all--can come off as royally arrogant.  The soft-spoken Culliver isn’t one of them.  Two, his emotions appear to be in check.  Even though he often evaded my tougher questions, not once was he ever dismissive or flash anger in my direction for asking them.  We even shook hands as we were about to leave.  Three, I believe in the genuineness of his compassion toward the youngster at the Ronald McDonald House. 

And one more thing. Has anyone reading this ever read or heard of Chris Culliver breaking the law or hurting anyone away from a football field?  Me neither.

Regarding the “indecent thing” he said about not accepting a gay teammate, he repeated again that such a sentiment is not what’s truly in his heart.  Is he telling the truth?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I don’t know.  But, what I do know is that his first job right now, irrespective of what he feels in his heart about gay people, should be to tell the world that he believes in the right’s of all people—regardless of race, nationality, sex, or orientation—to earn a living from their chosen profession if they are able to do the job. 

Unfortunately, Culliver still appears to be subscribing to the “If I don’t talk about it, it will go away” school of scandal management. That strategy certainly won’t work for any current NFL player who might be gay and scared to come out of the closet.  Will that strategy work for Culliver as he continues to play for a very image conscious NFL in a sport where non-guaranteed contracts are just one of the factors that make NFL players a little more replaceable than their counterparts in other sports?  Time will tell.  It should be noted, though, that athletes like Michael Vick and Tim Hardaway took more aggressive “open book” approaches in dealing with their scandals and it’s worked out well for them.

The end of 'Linsanity'

Six days after Chris Culliver was born, the world welcomed Jeremy Lin.  One day after I talked to Culliver, I was among a group of reporters who caught up with Lin at the Houston Rockets morning shoot-around in advance of that night’s game against the Warriors at Oracle Arena.  We predictably peppered the former Warrior with questions about how he was feeling as he prepared to make his first appearance at Oracle since becoming the flashpoint of the national craze known as “Linsanity”. 

Perhaps you remember the “Linsanity” craze of 2012?  After Lin went from Knicks benchwarmer to breakout star, he found himself on the cover of magazines like “Time” and “Sports Illustrated.”  Jersey sales at the Knicks team store shot up 3000%.  Deli’s couldn’t name sandwiches after him fast enough.  He was such a phenomenon, the late night talk shows fought to book him as a special guest…and most could not.

Now that Lin has parlayed his Knicks success into a three-year, $25 million deal with the Rockets, he is bona fide NBA point guard.  However, while he’s still very popular, “Linsanity” has pretty much run its course.  I asked him how he felt about the end of “Linsanity.”  The soft-spoken Lin responded that while the “Linsanity” days were a great memory, he was glad they were over.  Now, he said, he could concentrate on being “just a young player, trying to get better.”

Remember way back in the first paragraph, I indicated that “many might think” there aren't too many similarities between Culliver and Lin?  In the end it seems they might actually be similar in a most fundamental, elemental way. They’re two guys whose willful actions got them caught up in a gale force wind of circumstance that briefly turned into a publicity hurricane.  Of course, Lin’s whirlwind was one of adoration while Culliver’s was one of infamy.  But this stark divergence has brought these two athletes—in one sense—to a very similar point:  Both of them are happy that the winds have died down a little.