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Matt Vautour: Former NFL running back Ricky Williams speaks his mind

AMHERST

The event was billed as a discussion of whether athletes are role models. It morphed into a combination of that and a panel talk on the role the media plays in shaping an athlete’s public image. But the exact topic didn’t matter. Ricky Williams was on the panel assembled by the University of Massachusetts’ Association of Diversity in Sport, so it was going to be interesting regardless of which direction the conversation went Wednesday at the Fine Arts Center.

From his historic collegiate career at Texas to his somewhat mercurial 11 seasons in the NFL, Williams was always interesting because he was curious about far more than the sport that made him rich and famous. The 35 year old, who returned to Austin, Texas, after retiring in 2011, spends most of his time pursuing those curiosities now.

According to CelebrityTalentPromitions.com, Williams earns between $10,000-$20,000 per speaking appearance. Not only did Williams attend Wednesday’s event without being paid, but he cleared his schedule to attend.

“It sounded like an interesting conversation,” Williams said. “Kids in college are really open, really receptive to different ideas. I knew I could come and be myself and people would receive it and appreciate it.”

Williams, who revealed his struggles with social anxiety disorder during his career, appeared at ease on stage in front of the crowd that nearly filled the theater’s orchestra seating. The panel included UMass sport management professors Todd Crosset and moderator Tracy Schoenadel, and Kevin Blackistone, a former sports columnist who now teaches journalism at Maryland and is a regular on ESPN’s Around the Horn.

Williams was a natural for the role model topic. He began his football career wanting to live up to that ideal, before positive tests for marijuana use tarnished his image.

“I bought into the role model thing hook, line and sinker. As hard as I tried to be the best role model, it never worked. When I got in trouble for smoking pot, the whole role model thing crumbled and I let it go. That was devastating to me,” he said. “It took my heart out because this thing I tried so hard to build, never worked. One little thing goes wrong and it all comes crashing down.

“I was suspended for smoking pot. Everyone knows. Big deal,” Williams continued. “I came back and had success. That (suspension) has no relevance to my life now but every time I read an article about myself I have to be reminded.”

Williams, who played in New Orleans, Miami and Baltimore, said that how an athlete builds his or her relationship with the media greatly influences not only how he or she is initially perceived, but whether their public image can be rehabilitated after it takes a hit.

“When something went wrong, the guys that liked me gave me an easier time,” Williams said. “The guys that didn’t like me jumped all over it.”

While he was more open than most athletes, Williams rarely let his guard all the way down during his career.

“There would be no benefit whatsoever to revealing yourself to the media,” he said laughing. “It’s like talking to a woman. Whatever you say she’s going to use it against you at some point in time.”

Twitter had only begun to be popular among athletes late in his career, but Williams liked the medium’s ability to leapfrog the media and allow him to communicate directly with fans.

“I had the idea to eliminate the media when I got to Miami so I started a blog,” he said. “It was really fun in the beginning. It gave people an inside look at who I was. The media started to take things from what I was writing and they didn’t have to interview me anymore. It allowed people reading to see what I really said and forced the media to print what I really said. It was fun and created more space for me to be myself.”

Williams doesn’t think the NFL is ready for everybody to be themselves.

Last week, Domonique Foxworth, who is president of the NFL Players Association, told NFL.com that his organization had begun working to educate the players for the “inevitable” announcement of an active player revealing his homosexuality. The report followed a CBSSports.com article in which an unnamed NFL player was “strongly considering coming out as gay.” Williams didn’t think the league was ready.

“It’s not happening in football. Because that person is not going to be able to exist in the locker room. It’s not happening. What’s the benefit to coming out? ... Part of the player coming out wouldn’t be for the player or the team, it would be for everyone else. I guarantee that there are homosexual players on teams and everyone on the team knows,” Williams said. “That’s their brother and they care bout them. They wouldn’t want them to come out because they wouldn’t want them to have to deal with what was going to come up afterward.”

When it happens, Williams will find out from afar. Unlike many former players who’ll do whatever they can to prolong their football life, Williams has done little to stay connected to the NFL.

He’s spent retirement traveling and working with his foundation, which helps “the physical, mental, emotional and educational development of at-risk individuals from low social-economic communities” according to RickyWilliamsFoundation.com. The interest in yoga and spiritual searching that began toward the end of his playing days has blossomed with free time. He’s led “Access Consciousness” classes around the country, a pursuit that he’s found fulfilling.

“It allows you a different milieu, a different place where you can be yourself,” he said. “When you have different things that allow you to be you, you can put your sport or your job into some kind of perspective where it contributes to your whole life and you don’t shut off parts of yourself.”

Williams, who is married with six children, is glad not to wonder how his actions will affect his team or professional football anymore.

“One of the best things for me about retiring is that I can say whatever I want to,” he said smiling.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com.

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