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Joseph Ossai and the need for empathy

Joseph Ossai had BJ Hill in his corner. It’s a shame he needed him.

Joseph Ossai made the biggest mistake of his young career on Sunday night. The kind of play that would have been the worst mistake of a career lasting decades. Desperately trying to make a play and keep the Chiefs out of field goal range, the Bengals’ second-year defensive end got lost in the moment and didn’t realize that Patrick Mahomes was out of bounds when he made contact, shoving him to the ground and getting flagged for unnecessary roughness.

We can litigate the nature of the penalty and whether it deserved being flagged, but it won’t change two extremely obvious truths:

  1. It led to Kansas City being in position for the game-winning field goal
  2. There was nothing about Ossai’s actions that indicated maliciousness

It was just one of those plays. It happens. Athletes get caught up in the moment, they make a mistake — and more of than not they’re allowed to move on. Unfortunately for Ossai it happened at the worst possible moment, at the worst possible time, in the biggest game imaginable.

We saw live as Ossai sat alone, inconsolable on the Bengals bench — knowing his actions potentially cost his team a place in the Super Bowl. Fate would have decided if Cincinnati would return, but Ossai ensured that didn’t. It carried into the locker room, when Ossai was surrounded by the media, still in tears, and barely able to keep it together while teammate BJ Hill backed up his teammate and helped deflect the most biting questions.

It’s amazing that Hill was there to back up Ossai, but such a damn shame we needed him to. How did reach a point where a player needs to be the voice of reason in a press pool? How did the decline of basic human empathy plummet so precipitously that someone thought it was appropriate to ask a 22-year-old, in tears, at the lowest moment of his life:

“How hard is it not to, maybe, not pull all that weight on you?”

Ossai made it a few words, choking out “it’s extremely hard, man” before breaking down again — only to have Hill intervene and stop the question. What was to be gained by asking that? What possible answer do you expect as a reporter?

I am not a journalist. I don’t claim to be one. I’m not on the ground doing critical reporting on news issues that shape the worlds — but one thing that still sticks from a journalistic ethics class I took in college was when a professor of mine said “no matter the subject, no matter the story, never forget your humanity.”

It’s why I’m so utterly floored when I see something like this. I understand everyone is trying to hit deadlines and get quotes from the biggest story to close the game, but should that come at the expense of so blatantly ignoring the humanity of a subject? Is it worth making a 22-year-old cry just to get a half-choked out answer saying “yes, it’s extremely difficult knowing I hurt my team”?

Anyone with a modicum of observational awareness could have crafted a story about the moment without cornering the player himself. So much more of this moment could have been told through describing his body language, how teammates rallied around him, getting quotes about Ossai from other players, showing their support for their teammate — rather than pouring gasoline on the worst moment of a player’s life.

If we want to discuss when a player could and should have done better we also have to be willing to be introspective. We can all do better in this industry, not only to regain trust, but show a little basic empathy and not try to make a horrible situation for someone worse. It’s not that difficult.