By Jason Keidel
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I’m not a very popular – or particularly smart – guy lately.
I laughed at Eli Manning when he compared himself favorably to Tom Brady. (Now Eli is playing like Tom Brady and laughing at me.) I said the Jets were dead. (Then they won three straight while their competitors collapsed, paving a wide runway for the Jets to land in the playoffs.) I didn’t like the Carmelo Anthony trade. (Now the Knicks, blessed by the new CBA, were able jettison Chauncey Billups and his bloated $14 million salary, carving out cap room for Tyson Chandler, making their front-line as formidable as any in basketball.)
Now I’m defending James Harrison and Ndamukong Suh.
Well, not defending them, per se, but the spirit their ancestors created, the violent prologues to our current, softer culture. You can hate the player, but you’ll never hate the game.
Perhaps I should recuse myself because I’ve been a Steelers fan since 1976, and any assault on my beloved black & gold is an attack on Jack Ham, Lambert, Chuck Noll, hot dogs, apple pie, and Americana. But I’ll fight my impulse to shill for the “Stillers.”
The NFL banks on the dichotomy (if not paradox) of the civil savage, wants the beast to feast on the field, but in moderation. Blast the running back but don’t hurt him, please. It’s kind of like asking Dracula to write a vegetarian cookbook.
Before you pound your keyboard and drop your invectives down the chute, please understand I’m not supporting senseless assault. I understand the need to neuter Chris “The Hangman” Hanburger and Jack Tatum. I understand that Albert Haynesworth and Suh can’t go Gene Kelly with their cleats on prostrate linemen. And, yes, I understand that James Harrison can’t jam his helmet into Colt McCoy’s face. Harrison didn’t intend to just tackle McCoy; he wanted to concuss the quarterback.
We can shave the shards of gratuitous violence, and discipline guys like Harrison, who, beyond falling way short of Mensa membership, seems to carry great contempt for rules, even when violating them hurts his team.
But it says here that the primary problem with pro football doesn’t lie on the laps of renegades, but with the inherent, inevitable physics of the game itself. As long as behemoths crash into each other, we will have concussions.
Harrison’s teammate, Troy Polamalu isn’t an overly dirty defender, yet he’s had dozens of concussions since high school. During a recent, nationally televised game against the Chiefs, Polamalu made a textbook tackle, lunging below the waist of his opponent. After his head drilled the ball carrier’s knee, Polamalu dropped like a bag of oranges, his face buried in the grass, motionless for a moment, before slowly rising and staggering around. He was removed from the game and didn’t play again.
And it’s absolutely sickening to watch the NFL’s noblemen, pioneers and dignitaries, from John Mackey to Earl Campbell – many of whom haven’t the finances or insurance for decent care – limp, stagger, stumble, and crawl to the finish line. Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, and Mike Webster died most ignoble deaths.
But could they have been prevented? It’s beyond my pay grade. But I’m inclined to think that if your brain is jackhammered for fifteen years, a biological version of “52 pick-up” is inevitable. Feel free to read Peter King’s account in Sports Illustrated of the 1986 Bengals a quarter-century later. Boomer Esiason aside, they’re all in pain, often severe, assuming they’re still alive.
And how do you legislate physics? We have increasingly large, limber men flying like comets at each other, with titanic collisions at midfield. The league says you can’t lead with your helmet. Then when you lead with your shoulder, the ref still flips a flag because you’ve hit a defenseless player. London Fletcher employed an entirely legal tackle on Tom Brady, yet was still pinched for 15 yards. What’s next? Maybe the safety sends a subpoena to the wide receiver, providing proper legal notice that he’s about to have the snot knocked out of him.
Yesterday, Mike Francesa read a letter from Pete Rozelle, written in 1977 and addressed to George Atkinson, who made hay on my Steelers more than once. Rozelle scolded Atkinson after a particularly brutal, clubbing forearm to (my beloved) Lynn Swann’s head:
“Our sport obviously involves intense physical contact, but it requires of all players discipline and control and remaining within the rules. Every player deserves protection from the kind of unnecessary roughness that could end his career.”
Quite reasonable. Indeed, Atkins’s hit on Swann made Suh and Harrison look like jaywalkers. Rozelle’s sentiment was (and still is) sound. But I still can’t reconcile violence and protection. What if “necessary roughness” is what’s really crippling players? If Rozelle were a boxing authority, Atkinson’s offense could be called rabbit punching, or thumbing the opponent’s eye, or, in Mike Tyson’s demonic world, biting off a man’s ear. But you can get knocked out quite legally. Just watch what George Foreman did to Joe Frazier (twice) or what Sonny Liston did to Floyd Patterson (twice). Or just watch Polamalu every week.
What we’ve now discovered is that football, even at its cleanest, isn’t that different from boxing. Indeed, the old salt from the sweet science are marching home drunk without even drinking. We saw it in Ken Norton, Muhammad Ali, and Thomas Hearns, among thousands of fighters. But we expect punchy pugilists. What we didn’t expect was the same, neurological mess from football players because hard shells covered their splintered cells. That’s why they wear pads, we thought, to shield them from shattered bones and blood vessels. Turns out it doesn’t work that way.
I seriously doubt you were naïve enough to think football had no deleterious consequences. But, assuming you were, have you stopped watching now that you discovered the danger? Judging by the $9 billion or so the NFL inhales every year, you’re still tuning in.
The best thing that comes from any revelations, as new data trickles down from slabs to science labs to our laptops, is that parents may make a more informed decision about allowing their sons to play football. If football can indeed cause dangerous numbers of proteins to huddle in the brain, or possibly cause Lou Gehrig’s disease, dementia, depression, and suicide, mom and dad have the right to know about it before fitting Junior for thigh pads.
At some point a young man’s life forks at freedom, when he becomes the sum of his choices. And if all parties still agree to play the game, they can’t say they weren’t warned. Because I can assure you, no matter the danger to the player, we’ll watch the game.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com