When the team traveled to San Antonio this week to begin training camp, Bryant was the first player on the field for the team’s initial practice Saturday, and then lit up the Alamodome with more highlight-reel grabs.
But Bryant claimed the spotlight again Sunday for another reason, when he refused to take part in the time-honored tradition of carrying a veteran’s pads in from the practice field. Veteran receiver Roy Williams — who some have speculated could lose his job to Bryant before the season is done — handed his pads off to Bryant, only to have his young teammate refuse.
“I’m not doing it,” Bryant said. “I feel like I was drafted to play football, not carry another player's pads.”
He said his status as a first-round draft pick didn’t factor into his decision to refuse to Carry Williams’s pads.
“If I was a free agent, it would still be the same thing. I just feel like I’m here to play football. I’m here to try to help win a championship, not carry someone’s pads.”
For his part, Williams said his instruction to Bryant was nothing more than the continuation of a long-standing tradition that every player — including Williams, when he was drafted by the Detroit Lions — must endure.
“Everybody has to go through it," Williams said. “I had to go through it. No matter if you're a No. 1 pick or the 7,000th pick, you've still got to do something when you're a rookie. I carried pads. I paid for dinners. I paid for lunches — I did everything I was supposed to do, because I didn't want to be ‘that guy.’”
OK, there’s something of a standoff here. So who’s to blame?
Both of them.
Bryant is exactly right — he wasn’t drafted to carry a veteran’s pads. He has performed well in practice, smiled for the cameras and signed autographs for fans. If he catches touchdowns that help the Cowboys win games, he will be embraced even more than he already is.
On the other hand, Williams also has a point. Rookies have carried veterans’ pads for years. By definition it can be called hazing, but it pales in comparison to some of the things that go on in NFL camps every year. How often do local newscasts show tape of rookies who get taped to goalposts (sometimes with ice water being poured over them)? How many rookies have received less-than-glamorous haircuts from their veteran teammates? How many have been forced to pick up the tab for teammates who order dinners that add up to thousands of dollars?
Williams then went on to say that Bryant’s refusal would bring about another level of attention from the veterans, although he declined to say what that second level would be.
While carrying pads or getting a head shaved has never been deemed “harmful” to anything but a player’s ego, promising additional repercussions was the wrong way to go. There is a definite place in sports for tradition and young players earning the respect of their elders. If Williams (or any other veteran) decides that Bryant needs to show more respect, fine — but that has to be solved in private. Settle it in the locker room. Settle it on the practice field (after training camp, when the media isn’t allowed at every practice).
After Monday’s practice, the media swarmed Williams as he made his way off the field, and the veteran wideout made it sound as if the controversy is almost entirely the creation of the media.
“Everything’s good,” Williams said. “You guys just want to pin us against each other, from the first day, and it’s not going to happen. You can try again today and try again, but it’s not going to happen.”
OK, but it wasn’t the media who said that Bryant’s refusal to carry Williams’s pads would be met with additional rookie treatment.
Williams tried Monday to downplay any rift between the two players.
“I was never upset — watch the tape,” he said. “I was never upset about anything. He doesn’t have to take the pads, and we have talked about it.
“He wants to concentrate on football, and we’re going to let him concentrate on football. But when we go out to eat, I’m going to be a little bit more hungry and thirsty.”
Williams was asked if he views Bryant’s defiance as an act of disrespect toward Williams or the other veterans.
“The guy wants to do his thing — let him do his thing,” Williams said. “Everybody has done it before, but if he doesn’t want to do it, he doesn’t have to do. (It is) not a big deal — not football-related.
“It should be (fun). I had to do it, and I was the seventh pick. It’s what you have to do, but if you don’t want to do it, it’s not like I’m going to put a gun to your head and make you do it. It’s not a big deal.”
For someone who insists the controversy is “not a big deal,” Williams doesn’t sound like someone willing to let it go.
“Like I said, I will be a little more hungry” when players go out to eat, Williams said. “I might take my 10 family members that are here out to eat when we go out, and we will find a way (to make Bryant pay) — we will find a way. Maybe we can get him to take the pads one day.”
Bryant has been commended by some for standing up for himself, claiming he’s a Cowboy solely to catch touchdowns and help the team win games, and not put up with team traditions that sometimes are viewed as hazing, however minor. He certainly has that right. But by digging his heels in through the media, he helped create the impression of a Bryant vs. Williams rift, even if it doesn’t really exist.
On the other hand, if Williams doesn’t enforce such traditions, some other veteran will — that much can be assured when so many players gather year after year for the monotony that is training camp. While he undoubtedly felt disrespected by the precocious rookie’s refusal to carry his pads, Williams was wrong to promise that the veterans basically “would get Bryant” in some other way.
Rookie pride is fine, as are veteran traditions. But such issues have to be sorted out privately. When they are aired publicly, both sides run the risk of looking bad.