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NFL players should be free to decide whether to attend childbirth

Charles Tillman

Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman (33) looks out over the field during warmups before the start of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Chicago, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)


The issue of Bears cornerback Charles Tillman possibly missing Sunday night’s game for the birth of his child placed on our radar screen for the second time this season a delicate question, about which plenty of you have strong opinions.

Earlier this year, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made clear his intention to miss a game if he had to, even though he added that he and his wife will “do everything we can” to avoid that outcome. Addressing the Roethlisberger situation on NBC Sports Network’s Pro Football Talk, I raised the intersection of family issues and football season from the perspective of the specific lifestyle the player has chosen -- and for which he is compensated significantly.

On Wednesday, after hearing that Tillman had said he won’t play on Sunday if his wife is in labor, I dusted off that “this is the business we’ve chosen” mentality, without completely thinking through all of the issues that naturally arise.

Now that I’ve had a chance to consider the situation more carefully, and to consider the feedback (profane and otherwise) from some who have disagreed with the notion that players should try their best to plan for the stork to arrive in the offseason, I’ve come to realize that telling a player how to handle birth is exactly like telling him how to handle death.

And it’s been my position for years that I’ll never disagree with how someone chooses to grieve.

Some players have decided not to play when a family member dies (e.g., former Vikings receiver Troy Williamson, after his grandmother passed) and some will (e.g., Packers quarterback Brett Favre the day after his father died, and Ravens receiver Torrey Smith the same day his brother died). Regardless of what they choose, it’s their choice.

That same approach should apply when a baby is being born.

It’s not an easy issue, for any player. Being a father entails being present at important moments. Being a father also involves the solemn duty of provider. A father, while providing for his family, sometimes misses a wide variety of events.

What’s worse? A football player who isn’t present for the birth but spends hour after hour of the offseason with his children, or a CEO who is there to cut the umbilical cord but otherwise is rarely home when the kids are awake?

In the football context, the fact that a decision would even have to be made highlights the potential conflict between a father’s role as a participant in childbirth and his role as the man who provides for the family. If the answer was so obvious, there wouldn’t even be a question.

Then again, the fact that it’s even a question possibly flows from the “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” mentality that caused former Oilers offensive line coach Bob Young to proclaim in 1993 that, by attending the birth of his child, tackle David Williams “let the guys down, and he let hundreds of thousands of fans down.”

In the end, each player has to make the decision if/when the issue arises, balancing a wide variety of factors and concerns, including but not limited to the health of the mother, the health of the baby, and the wishes of the mother. Other considerations will include the value of the player to the team, the importance of the game, and the amount of money that the player could be sacrificing by not being available on one of the 16 days per year when presence on the football field is as close to mandatory as it ever is.

Teams should support whatever the player decides to do, even if the coach, G.M., owner, or others would have made a different decision -- or if it’s obvious to team management that the player gave no thought whatsoever to even trying to time the pregnancy so that it would end during the offseason.

As to Tillman, he has said via Twitter that his new baby will be born on Monday. And that he’ll be present for the game on Sunday.

If, in the end, his wife goes into labor before or during the game against the Texans, whatever Charles decides to do should be accepted and respected by his teammates, his coaches, his owner, the fans, and the media.