Piling On and the Art of Discernment

 Unless you have been out of the country or simply hate the idea of listening to sports, the story of the week is easily the trade of Carson Palmer, the quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, to the Oakland Raiders. I am an admitted “sports nut,” but I usually keep my deep and discerning discussions of athletics to my sports buddies.  When was the last time you heard a sports story that needed discernment? 

For the uninitiated, this story has all the intrigue of a John Grisham novel.  A wealthy, unpopular owner of a pro football team who leads by virtue of being born, has yet another disastrous year.   His team loses twice as many games as they win and he rewards his reasonably priced coach with a contract extension. 

Then his “company line,” once All-Pro quarterback, the only straight man in the ongoing circus of a team filled with media darlings and lawbreakers, says in private, “trade me or I will retire.”  Translated, this means, I have given you the best 8 years of my body’s life (remember the nasty ACL and MCL tears in the 2006 playoff game and my ripped elbow in 2008) and I am now willing to walk away from $46 million dollars rather than continue working for an owner who has the dubious distinction of being the slowest owner in NFL history to 100 wins and the fastest to 200 losses. 

The owner sets his jaw and with the conviction of an Old Testament prophet says in public, “Carson signed a contract, he made a commitment.  He gave us his word and his commitment.  We expected him to perform here.  If he is going to walk away from his commitment, we aren’t going to reward him for doing it.”  He reiterated that declaration just last week and then suddenly on Tuesday, Carson is traded. 

So what happened?  I am glad you asked, because this is where the “discernment and piling on” occurs.  Immediately, sports talk radio is filled with callers who “discern” what a great deal the owner made in trading Carson and “pile on” Carson as the over-the-hill quarterback they were glad to send to the West coast.  

Discernment is the ability to detect, to recognize and to perceive what is going on around you.  It is insight beyond the obvious and outside the realm of facts.  Discerning people have more that knowledge.  They have understanding and perspective.  Discerning people move beyond their wants to their needs.  Discerning people make the right choices amid the tough circumstances.

Spiritually speaking, discernment enters into the realm of wisdom.  Solomon prayed for such wisdom:  “So give Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people to discern between good and evil … (I Kings 3:9.”  Paul said, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment (Philippians 1:9).”

So, what can we discern from the story of the rich owner and the wayward quarterback?  Notice the quarterback spoke to his boss in private and never strayed from that mode of communication.  The owner spoke in public and belittled the quarterback’s lack of commitment to his signed contract. 

  • Discerning people understand the quarterback’s request to be traded could cost him $46 million, but the owner’s decision not to trade him could save the owner those same millions. 
  • Discerning people understand the owner could talk about the quarterback honoring his commitment, yet this same owner had cut hundreds of players before their contracts were fulfilled and gave them nothing.
  • Discerning people understand the owner in public said one thing and did another but the quarterback in private said one thing and did exactly that one thing.
  • Discerning people understand the owner told the city of Cincinnati if they would build him a new stadium, he would put a competitive team on the field, and he didn’t. 
  • Discerning people also understand this story is not simply about sports, but about life and words and actions and choices.

It is a story of how easy it is to “pile on” when someone is down.  It is a story about the power of private words spoken and lived.  It is a story about public words spoken and ignored when the price tag goes up.  Yes, it is a story about us all.

After over three decades of managing and motivating people in the local church as a pastor, I now spend my waking hours heralding the call for living in redemptive, reconciled relationships. I simply call them “stay in the room” relationships.