Salk: Embarrassed, sympathetic for ‘tragic character’ Russell Wilson

Feb 8, 2023, 4:17 PM | Updated: 9:31 pm
Broncos Russell Wilson...
Broncos QB Russell Wilson walks off the field during a game against the on Oct. 6, 2022. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images)

Over the past year, we have been through just about everything with Russell Wilson. We cheered him. We were in denial about him leaving. Some of us wanted him to stay over Pete Carroll. Some of us thought he needed to be the one to go. We were shocked when he was traded. We were excited when he came to Seattle and left 0-1.

And then we watched the circus in Denver that he helped create but couldn’t contain. Sometimes we laughed. Sometimes we cringed. Sometimes we just shook our head and wondered how the same player we watched for a decade of (mostly) incredible times could have declined so thoroughly. It was clear that he was out and away from the guidance and protection that Pete and the Seahawks offered. It was clear that some of the masked issues were revealing themselves in real time.

And while I have chuckled and even laughed at some of the ridiculous gaffes that we’ve seen since he first told Broncos Country to ride, today I find myself feeling something new for Russ: I am embarrassed for him.

The last few weeks have been rough for him. There were talks about the Broncos cutting him and eating the money. Their coaching search was a public debacle and it led many to wonder if the coaches with the most leverage were so wary of working with him that they were eschewing top dollar paid by the league’s wealthiest owners. When Sean Payton finally took the job, he went out of his way to say that access to the building for non-players was “foreign” to him and would not be a part of his regime moving forward. Then his buddy Terry Bradshaw insinuated that Payton didn’t want to work with Russ but couldn’t find a better option.

And yet, all of that paled in comparison to the USA Today investigation into his charitable giving.

Writer Jason Wolf penned a long story that alleges that the Russell Wilson Foundation (the Why Not You Foundation) “spent almost $600,000 — or just 24.3 cents of every dollar — on charitable activities in 2020 and 2021 combined and nearly twice as much, $1.1 million, on salaries and employee benefits in that span, according to federal tax records.”

Report: Practices of Russell Wilson’s foundation in question

It is a deep-dive investigation that includes commentary from accountants, watchdog groups and charitable experts who paint an unflattering picture of the foundation. In short, the foundation not only didn’t do a very good job of donating the money it raised, but it also exaggerated how much money it was responsible for bringing in.

For example, “the Why Not You Foundation donated $78,000 to Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2019, according to tax records, a fraction of the $2.6 million check presented. It has donated $836,000 to Seattle Children’s Hospital and the Seattle Children’s Hospital Foundation since its inception, according to tax records.”

In short: the foundation did good things, but greatly exaggerated them.

Sound familiar?

It should. Perhaps you remember Dr. Steve Shin? He was the doctor who operated on Russ’ mallet finger in 2021. Afterwards, he released a statement saying, “Although this was uncharted territory (I have never in my career seen such a severe injury to the throwing hand of an NFL quarterback), I have also never encountered a player so committed to his postoperative therapy and with so much conviction to return to the same, if not better, level of performance as he had pre-injury. I am absolutely amazed at his progress, so much so that I can now confidently clear him for full return to play without reservation.”

It read like it came straight from Russ’ PR shop and reeked of unnecessary hyperbole. It was the worst finger injury ever for a quarterback? No player has ever been so committed to rehab therapy? He was going to come back better than before? Come on!

And it made sense coming from the same guy who said he had a premonition that he’d be drafted by Seattle, doesn’t have time to sleep, reportedly asked for his own private suite before his first start as a rookie, and talks often about his “legacy.”

It is all just so unnecessary! Russell Wilson is a great player. He doesn’t need to tell everyone how great he is. Russell Wilson is a tough dude who once played a whole season with a torn MCL and a high-ankle sprain. He doesn’t need to claim to be more dedicated to therapy than everyone else.

Russell Wilson is a charitable, caring individual. But there was no need to exaggerate just how successful his foundation really was.

It’s embarrassing.

After reading the USA Today report, I don’t believe Russell or the people around him did anything malicious. There might have been mistakes made, but it doesn’t read like a case of true impropriety. There is no accusation of embezzlement and the one claim of illegality reads to me as more of a mistake than anything else. Certainly, I am not an expert, but that is the vibe I got after reading the report.

This report came about as the second of a five-part series looking into the Walter Payton Award winners and their charities. Russ’ foundation certainly stands out for the low percentage of money it delivers to the named charities, but the series also seems to show how little guidance many of these athletes have in terms of turning their desire to give into something actually helpful.

But Russ is in many ways is a tragic figure. That is defined in literature as “a protagonist of a tragic story or drama, in which, despite their virtuous and sympathetic traits and ambitions, they ultimately meet defeat, suffering, or even an untimely end. They are often imperfect or wounded with some sort of fraught experience, and typically have some sort of fatal flaw.”

Russ has many virtues, his charitable nature high among them. He really did go to the Children’s Hospital every week and make a difference in the lives of countless sick kids. But he is now suffering because of his imperfections. His need to make more of his accomplishments than they merit. His need to show us how superlative he is, whether it’s finding an open receiver, healing from a broken finger or donating to a worthy cause. It almost feels like a superhero complex!

And now that the narrative has caught up to him, I wonder if we’ll see more of his fatal flaws. I wonder if his need to define his own legacy has backfired to such an extent that it is now totally out of his control. And I wonder when the next shoe will drop.

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