By Jason Keidel
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This has not been the best year for the sport of football, whether it’s played on Saturday or Sunday.
The Penn State atrocities happened under the aegis of a presumably pristine, powerhouse program –- led by an icon, Joe Paterno, whose plunge from grace will be felt for decades. The Saints paid their players for putting opponents in hospitals, and the NFL is buried under an avalanche of lawsuits from former players who claim the formerly Teflon brand hid information about the true hazards of playing professional football.
And while cynics, intellectuals and other highbrow types who think sports are little more than pituitary cases stuffing a ball through a hoop try to use these problems as pretexts to dissolve America’s favorite sport, an unlikely observer jumped into the tornadic debate over the future of football.
George Will, a renowned writer, thinker and baseball aficionado, recently wrote a compelling column for The Washington Post dissected the NFL’s concussion problem. There was clear pall cast by Will, who framed the NFL’s violence in haunting hues.
Will believes that the increasingly bulging brotherhood that stuffs those jerseys every Sunday is too big to keep the sport safe. He notes that there were only three players who weighed over 300 pounds in 1980, whereas that number has jumped to 352 players today. This, he believes, is what is adding to the brain damage, specifically CTE, which leads players to all kinds of pitfalls –- most notably and tragically, suicide.
At the risk of sounding like a savage … So what? It’s suddenly news that galloping full speed and lunging headfirst into each other is perilous? And now we’re supposed to renounce the very sport we love, using the very reason we love it: violence. If we weren’t so sanctimonious as a species maybe we could actually have a logical discourse.
First, it says here that the problem isn’t with the girth of their bellies but rather the fragility of our brains. This is about bone and brain colliding, not some exotic belly-bumping contest at the line of scrimmage. If it were just about size, then the occurrences of mental illness would be new.
But they aren’t.
Perhaps we are better at diagnosing Player X’s ailment, but its existence is as old as the sport itself. In fact, The New York Times ran a piece about the perils of playing catcher in baseball, and the history of mental disorders and seemingly random violence found in former backstops. The cases go back a century. We just didn’t know catching caused it until recently.
And the problem isn’t with Pop Warner and high school ball, or even college. The problem arises after the innocence and softer contact of amateur play and subsequent, incessant drum of helmet-to-helmet contact over five, ten and even fifteen years. And whether your enemy weighs 200 pounds or 400 pounds, the physics begin and end above the neck.
There are myriad holes in Will’s thesis, which is odd for a man of his gifts and gravitas. He leads the column with Ray Easterling, former NFL safety who committed suicide in April. Easterling played long before the behemoths roamed the gridiron. Then he cites Dave Duerson, also a victim of suicide, who did his damage in the 1980s, also before the influx of fat men. Then he mentioned Junior Seau, the latest and perhaps the most damaging of all cases. Seau was great and greatly loved and, it seems, no one knew it was coming.
John Mackey was a cripple long before the behemoths took over. Earl Campbell was also battered by smaller men. Mike Webster, from my dynastic Steelers, slept under bridges, in his car, or wherever he could before mental illness swallowed him, and long before his brethren all weighed over 300 pounds.
So this notion that knocking our skills for knocking skulls has improved with time, age or size is unfounded. I don’t pretend to have Will’s brain, but I don’t have to in order to punch through his case.
Then there’s the matter of free will, pun intended. We have it — and we love it — even when it’s bad for us. You don’t think Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds knew the deleterious effects of shooting equine cocktails into their beefy buttocks?
Which is a seamless segue to the final, and most important, point. Athletes have shown us that they are willing to sacrifice their futures for the transitory glory of the moment, even if they aren’t wise or mature enough to fully absorb the consequences. I once wrote a profile on Phil Simms for amNew York, and he encapsulated the mindset of everyone who walks the ledge with no harness, from smoking to drinking to drugging to doping.
“It won’t happen to me,” Simms said of those who live entirely in today. And he’s right. Pick your “it” –- cancer, ALS, heart attack, liver failure, Alzheimer’s, etc. You can slap a thousand warnings around a syringe, on to a pack of Marlboros, on a bottle of Bud, but it doesn’t matter. You can change the conditions, but not the human condition. We are doomed or blessed (depending on your view) to try things our way until we’re forced to try another. And the “forcing” should always be self-imposed.
And no matter what we think about another man’s choices, they are his to make. We all do something hazardous. And those self-righteous blowhards who get into this hideous relativism –- “Drinking is legal; drugs are evil!” -– miss the point entirely. We are the sum of our choices, and those choices usually kill us. And while it’s too trite to regurgitate clichés about living hard, dying young and leaving a pretty corpse, there’s something to be said for reaching the pinnacle of your profession — even if it means shaving a few years off your life.
And let’s be honest: as long as large, fast and absurdly athletic men are willing to risk life and limb on a grassy rectangle we will watch it. Often. And they know it.
Muhammad Ali, maybe the most important and probably the most gifted athlete of the 20th Century, hasn’t spoken in decades, with the aggregate blows to his beautiful face robbing his platinum tongue — the ultimate irony for a man who made his hay with his lips as much as his fists. Even back in 1996, when he was cheered and jeered in the Atlanta Olympics, it was quite painful and appalling to watch his trembling arm lower the torch to ignite the flames and the games.
Interestingly, Mr. Will presents facts that thwart his own mission. For instance, he states that 18 people were killed playing football in 1905. Yet no one is dying on the gridiron today. So why should we stop a sport that isn’t lethal?
Boxing isn’t trendy anymore, yet the infinitely more violent world of MMA is volcanic in the key demo. Where’s the demand for the demise of cage matches?
One thing Will omits when he talks about gladiatorial endeavors is our participation in it — our rampant voyeurism, the vicarious trip, riding shotgun down the sideline with our heroes. Since we can’t do it, we watch those who can.
Pretending we’re not savage animals prevents us from being civilized. And as long as we pretend we own the world rather than being a product of it — the fruit of it’s fertile and frenzied soil — the less likely we are to find a way to frame this debate. Parents decide if their kids play football, and the NFL’s job is to get the parents the accurate data. After that it’s all about choice.
For NFL players with careers longer than five years, their life expectancy is less than 60. Maybe an incredible 40 beats an indifferent 80. That’s an important choice for us to make. But it is our choice, and it always will be.
In light of the scandals and concussion controversies that we’ve seen in the last year, how do you feel about where the sport of football is going? Let us know in the comments section below…