The Importance of a Second Chance

Sunday is the Super Bowl, often the most watched television program in America each year. In fact, Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, is the second-most watched broadcast of all time in the U.S. (after the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969).

This year’s game will be played between the Los Angeles Rams and, improbably, the Cincinnati Bengals. Two years ago, the Bengals were the worst team in the N.F.L. Until this season, they hadn’t won a playoff game since 1991. And now, they’re playing in the Super Bowl. As a native Cincinnatian, this is like finding out that aliens are running the country and doing a pretty OK job at it, too.

The Super Bowl is a great stage for redemption — not only for teams, but for coaches and players, too. But to get a second chance is a rare gift, especially in the N.F.L. And yet, this year’s game features two players who’ve been offered one.

The thing with second chances is that they’re complicated. Some feel more deserved than others. Some feel like the result of more cynical forces. Each kind has gotten these players to the same place: the biggest game in American sports.

The first recipient is Bengals wide receiver Trent Taylor. In 2019, he was with the San Francisco 49ers when the team reached the Super Bowl (they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs). But he never saw the field that year because of a preseason foot injury that resulted in two surgeries and an infection.

Before this season, he was signed by the Bengals, then waived from the team — effectively cut but available to have his contract picked up by other teams. One day after getting waived, Taylor was signed to the Bengals’s practice squad, essentially a reserve team. These players practice, travel and workout with the main team; two practice squad players can be called up per week to play on game day.

Which is what happened to Taylor on the night before the A.F.C. Championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the match that determined whether the Cincinnati Bengals would go to the Super Bowl. In the third quarter, Taylor caught a pass from quarterback Joe Burrow to tie the score at 21-21 on the tail of a furious comeback by Cincinnati. (At one point, the Chiefs led the game 21-3.) This is how Trent Taylor got his second chance at the Super Bowl.

No wonder he told The Associated Press last week that he was deeply grateful for a chance to play on Sunday. “It’s a huge deal for me personally because, you know, guys in this league … guys will play 12, 15 years and never get an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl,” he said. “So once I missed that first opportunity, I didn’t know if it would ever come back.”

Most N.F.L. players won’t ever play in a Super Bowl. That’s mostly because the average league tenure is just 3.3 years. But even players with longer careers — including those worthy of the Hall of Fame — aren’t guaranteed the opportunity to play even in a divisional championship game, let alone the Super Bowl. And there are multiple teams that have never made an appearance in the game, like the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions.

Taylor’s second chance is incredibly uncommon — and worth celebrating. Working your way back from injury is hard. Working your way back from injury with a new team and making it from the practice squad to the A.F.C. Championship? That’s almost impossible.

Taylor’s teammate, running back Joe Mixon, scored 13 touchdowns for Cincinnati this season, but his personal history could have derailed his career. In July 2014, he was about to start his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma when he punched a female student. He hit her so hard that she was knocked unconscious and required reconstructive surgery to repair four broken bones in her face.

Mixon was charged with misdemeanor assault and suspended for the entire 2014 season, but he was allowed to return in 2015. He had two strong seasons before declaring for the N.F.L. (He and the woman eventually reached a settlement.) His forgiveness was complicated, though, in 2016, when a video of the assault was released to the public following a court ruling. Mixon apologized to the woman and to the University of Oklahoma. But then-head coach Bob Stoops said that if he had to do it over again, he would have kicked Mixon off the team. “These individuals can’t have a second chance,” he said.

Or can they? While multiple teams reportedly took Mixon off their lists of must-have picks, he was drafted in 2017 by the Bengals. As New York Post sportswriter Mark Cannizzaro wrote in a piece on Monday, Mixon has “become a poster child of sorts for the value of second chances.” The pass he got didn’t wipe the slate clean, of course — one headline from this year was “Joe Mixon’s timeline of trouble.” But he still got another opportunity, one that a lot of people who commit violent assault, or endure violent assault, for that matter, never get.

This got me wondering about who gets second chances and why. So I reached out to Colgate University professor David Newman, who wrote the book, “A Culture of Second Chances: The Promise, Practice, and Price of Starting Over in Everyday Life.” Newman told me that the “second chance script” that exists in our culture — the narrative of a low point, followed by a confession or apology, contrition and ultimate redemption — often plays itself out in very public ways, but particularly in sports.

One type is the injury or illness narrative — stories like Taylor’s, or that of Peyton Manning, who came back from a severe neck injury to win a second Super Bowl in 2016. In these cases, the second chance was straightforward. Along with a good bit of luck, it was earned.

But there are also the stories of people who come back from misbehavior, Newman says. In these cases, the second chance must be granted, and there is no set of guidelines for this. “The desire for forgiveness is elastic,” Newman says. And “that desire to forgive grows if that athlete can perform.” An athlete, of course, like Mixon.

So is Mixon’s second chance tainted by the fact that it was likely brought about because he contributes so much to the team? In other words, was it deserved?

I think it’s a mistake to look through a lens of deservedness. If we do, the implication is that there can only be so many second chances given out before the supply runs out. But the gift of a second chance isn’t, or shouldn’t, be limited. I think more people should get them. Mixon aside, our culture has become pretty unforgiving. But I think that people are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.

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