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The Lesson of Geno Smith’s Broken Jaw

Society depends on the enforcement of debt. Without it, there’s chaos.

Ron Antonelli / Getty Images

New York Jets fans have been spared the trauma of yet another season with Geno Smith at the helm, as the quarterback is out 6-10 weeks with a fractured jaw after being punched by now-former teammate Ikemefuna “IK” Enemkpali. The reported cause of the locker room fight: Smith owed the backup linebacker $600 and was taking his sweet time to pay him back. It says something about Smith’s abilities on the field that the principal reaction to this news is not that he’ll miss half the season, but that he was injured over such a “measly” debt, as one (apparently flush) reporter at the New York Post put it.

The implication is that $600 is too minor a sum to warrant fighting over, especially if you’re two ridiculously rich football players. I beg to differ. No one, not even Donald Trump (especially not Donald Trump!), should let a $600 debt go uncollected. Implicit contracts lubricate our cultural interactions; were repayment optional, society would crumble. That makes Enemkpali a hero, not a goat.

The Jets news is a case study in the cancerousness of unpaid debts, which have ruined many a friendship—including ones between nations—by breeding anxiety, resentment, and even outright violence. Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter:

Smith… accepted a $600 plane ticket from IK Enemkpali to appear at the reserve linebacker’s football camp in Pflugerville, Texas, on July 11, according to sources. Problems arose when Smith did not show to the camp, which took place days after someone close to Smith was killed in a motorcycle accident in Miami, sources said.

After Smith did not attend, Enemkpali demanded that the Jets quarterback refund him the $600 he allegedly used to purchase the plane ticket. Smith told Enemkpali he would reimburse him the money, but he had not as of Tuesday morning.

Cue the mockery, because LOL Jets and sportswriters can’t resist an obvious pun.

But others harped on the amount due:

It is true that Enemkpali made $420,000 last year, his first in the league, and would have made $510,000 this year had the Jets not cut him for clocking Smith. But he was a sixth-round pick who, The New York Times notes, “got into six games as a rookie last year and made three tackles in limited minutes. He drew more attention from the news media for the difficulty some people had in pronouncing his name (it’s in-em-PAUL-ee) than for his performance on the field.” He was no superstar.

The average NFL career, for which Enemkpali seemed destined, is barely more than three years—after which many players, having spent little time in the classroom during college, struggle to find work for which they’re qualified and often end up broke. Sports Illustrated reported in 2009 that, “By the time they have been retired for two years, 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.”

Geno Smith, by contrast, is in the middle of a four-year, $5 million deal, of which $3 million is guaranteed. By no means does that make him immune to the challenges of life after the NFL, but he stands a much better chance than Enemkpali. The least Smith could have done was pay a month-old debt. As Deadspin points out, it’s easier than ever to pay people back today, what with PayPal and Venmo and the like. There’s also a little something called “cash,” and I’d bet that Smith had $600 of it in his wallet.

A society in which debts are not owed so much as suggested is a society of financial chaos in which none of us would like to live. “What goes around comes around”—which currently translates to “you damn well better grab the check next time”—would lose all meaning. Splitting dinner checks would become so tedious that no one would bother going out to dinner in groups anymore; hostesses would stop asking “how many?” because every restaurant would be just tables for one. Likewise, why buy a group of tickets in advance when you can’t trust you’ll be reimbursed? Our stadiums and theaters would fill not with friends, but strangers; StubHub would make single tickets the default, and only, option. We would live our lives entirely alone, rather than mostly alone—at least until we all died in a nuclear war between the U.S. and China, sparked by our nation’s refusal to make good on $1.22 trillion in debt.

This would all be Geno Smith’s fault. Unable to exert any control on the playing field, the star quarterback chose to abuse his power over the helpless benchwarmer, who did exactly what we all should do when confronted with the Geno Smiths of the world: Bust their jaw, for civilization’s sake.