Anthony Wallace has been standing outside the Cowboys’ practice facility in Irving, Texas, every day for two weeks. The former North Texas linebacker is holding a sign: “An opportunity is all I need. I promise you won’t regret it.”
Wallace joins the ranks of many other athletes who have recently stationed themselves outside NFL facilities with handmade signs to try to land spots on rosters. Starting in April and as late as June 1, former UMass Dartmouth receiver Abiola Aborishade stood outside Gillette Stadium with a sign, making a similar plea to the Patriots. Texas Southern’s Joe Anderson held court outside the Texans’ NRG Stadium last fall, already dressed in workout clothes (“Not homeless … but STARVING for success!!!”), while Towson’s Monte Gaddis waited outside Browns HQ (“Starving for my 1st shot. Why not?”).
It’s a nice story, even if it hasn’t exactly borne fruit: After news of Anderson’s efforts blew up on social media, the Jets signed him to their practice squad (he was released in May); the others remain free agents. Over the course of Wallace’s vigil, Cowboys scouts have approached him to explain that they have no space at the linebacker position. Still, the idea of wanting a chance so badly that you’ll beg for it for weeks on end is heartening. Who doesn’t want to see a guy like that get the opportunity to prove his mettle? That’s the kind of thing studios make movies about.
But there’s also a tipping point with stories like this, and as the tales of young guys standing outside stadiums with heartfelt, just-threw-this-together signs pile up, it’s hard not to think that there’s a cynical calculation going on behind the scenes. Social media hasn’t just made it easier for athletes to get in touch with teams and coaches — it’s made it easier for those athletes’ quests to go viral, bringing the full force of the internet down on teams, 100,000 Facebook commenters popping up to say, Just let him play, coach.
Is it wrong, though, for these players to know which buttons to push and which levers to pull to steer the internet content machine? Of course not. If you’re an athlete sitting at home, watching your dream slip away — why shouldn’t you do whatever you can to grab onto it?
Remember: The process of making it to the NFL isn’t fair. Maybe you didn’t go to the right school. Maybe you can’t afford an agent. Maybe you had a bad day in front of a scout. Maybe the world you grew up in kept you from ever getting in front of a scout at all. Who wins and who loses — who gets to be rich and famous, and who goes home, gets a normal job, and talks about their glory days playing college ball: So much of that stuff is capricious. You can be talented and good and kind and work your ass off and never have anyone notice. But if you can summon a winning smile and the right message, the internet might.
It seems likely that we’re just seeing the beginning of athletes deploying social media to break through to teams: other players have successfully used Twitter to argue for, and win, roster spots. Wallace is an early adopter of the sign-holding strategy, and it isn’t a bad bet to expect more stadium vigils — and more Instagram-optimized pleas — to come.