"Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings."
- George Will
Life. Love. Football. No, it’s not the Holy Trinity, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s not far removed. There’s something about watching large men beating the crap out of one another on a warm August evening. It’s like spring training baseball without the risk of sunburn and heat stroke. Except that players, most of whom will be driving beer trucks in a few weeks, are risking catastrophic injury in a meaningless game.
It happens to me every August; you can almost set your clock by it. I turn on my television, discover a preseason football game, and profess my surprise that it’s already football season. And here we are again.
Every summer, large athletic men arrive at NFL training camps around the country thinking they have a shot at glory. Some will make it, and it will be the realization of a dream. Most will be sent home to wonder what might have been…if only they’d been a bit faster…or stronger…or smarter…or….something.
I eagerly look forward to the NFL season. Like most fans, I played football as a schoolboy, which leads me to believe I know something about the game. I played quarterback, so I fancy myself something of an expert on reading defenses and throwing fades to the back of the end zone. I’m like most any other frustrated ex-jock, but allow me my delusions, willya??
This year, my anticipation over football’s arrival has been tempered by the increasing long-term toll the game takes on so many players. Junior Seau’s suicide was merely the latest tragedy to befall America’s most popular spectator sport. Seau’s death has me thinking about the long-term health implications of the NFL game and my passion for it. Football has always been a game in which pain and injury are the price of admission. Pain and injury that result in serious and deleterious long-term effects on players’ bodies and brains can only be viewed as a price too high to pay.
When I played high school football, hitting and getting hit hurt, but I felt invincible, so I wore the pain as a badge of honor. It’s bad enough when the impact involves kids who are perhaps six feet tall, weigh 175 pounds, and run a 5.0 40-yard-dash. When those players are 6-4, 250 lbs., and run a 4.3 40, the impact is exponentially worse, as is the potential for injury. One of those impacts can be likened to an automobile accident. An average NFL game involves many, many collisions of that magnitude. Do the math, and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to understand that the potential for injury is substantial. Human bodies simply weren’t designed to run into one another at full speed.
Players throw their bodies around the field in part because they understand that if they don’t, someone else will. Most NFL players are in the league for only a few years, but that’s often long enough to suffer injuries that can develop into serious, long-term health problems.
Football players are worshipped for their strength, speed, athleticism, and courage. What fans don’t see are the effects that often dog NFL alumni after their playing days are over. Memory issues, depression, and joint problems are among the most prevalent lingering long-term effects. Former players with knee and hip replacements are legion. The cumulative damage from multiple concussions can seriously impact a former player’s mental health. The phrase, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” or CTE, is something that football fans are becoming far too familiar with. CTE is only diagnosable postmortem via an evaluation of brain tissue, but the breadth and depth of the problem is becoming difficult to ignore.
David Duerson, Mike Webster, and Junior Seau are a small sample of former players diagnosed postmortem with CTE. The cause of CTE is repeated traumatic impacts to a player’s head. In layman’s terms, that means repeatedly being hit so hard that your brain bounces off the inside of your skull. Brain tissue, delicate and easily damaged, doesn’t regenerate, and repeated brain injuries can result in cumulative long-term damage. Repeated traumatic impacts to the head over the course of a NFL career can literally destroy a brain. No game, no form of entertainment is worth that…and yet the NFL continues on, secure in the knowledge it will always have a fresh and never-ending supply of bodies to populate their rosters. There are always athletes ready to sacrifice their bodies to realize their dreams.
There have been a few studies that show a correlation between an NFL career and a shortened life span. Determining a causative relationship is difficult, but the anecdotal evidence should make fans, owners, and players sit up and take notice. That said, there are still those willing to assume the risks of playing in the NFL for the benefits it provides. Former Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Bruce Smith once said that he was willing to sacrifice a few years of his life to support his family. I’m not certain I’d make the same trade, but playing in the NFL is a matter of choice, and the financial rewards are ample. For some, those rewards are worth the considerable risks they assume every time they step onto a field.
Football players know better than anyone the risks they assume. How often have you heard a player say that every game could be their last? That’s because football players understand that the line separating success from catastrophe is very thin. One unfortunate moment stands between them and a career-ending injury…and yet they continue to play.
Each fall I find myself questioning my allegiance to a game defined by and celebrated for it’s brutality. Until last season, ESPN’s GameDay ran it’s popular Jacked Up!!! segment on Sunday nights, which featured that week’s most brutal hits. Chris Berman and Tom Jackson took almost profane pleasure in collisions that often resulted in injuries to the players involved. Someone at ESPN finally figured out that celebrating the physical destruction of human beings might not be the most appropriate way to promote their football programming.
I still remember former Washington State and Phoenix Cardinal QB Timm Rosenbach talking about the violence and epic brutality of the game he loved. He retired early while he was still able to walk. Perhaps he knew too many NFL alumni dealing with permanent and debilitating injuries.
I wonder about my love for a game that chews up and spits out players. The average NFL career is less than four seasons, meaning that a 22-year-old fresh out of college is likely to be out of the league by the time he’s 26. Even an average-length NFL career can leave a player with injuries that will be with him for the rest of their life. For some, that’s the price of admission for playing the game they love, a risk worth taking.
I still love football, but there’s an uncertainty I feel in being a fan of a game that can exact such a heavy toll on those who play. I wonder how I can continue watching a game in which players blessed with ever-increasing speed, size, and strength hit each other with a violence that seems to increase exponentially with each season.
Then I grab my chips, turn on the television, and get lost in my love for the game all over again. Hey, I’m ready for some football!
(One last thought: What’s up with the clown suits the Seahawks wore Saturday night against Tennessee? I understand the marketing considerations and that Nike wanted to make an impression with their new designs, but…really???)