Bread and Circuses – Is the NFL too dangerous to continue?

On February 17th, 2011, Dave Duerson, former NFL Player killed himself.  Duerson was a defensive back for the Chicago Bears in the 80’s.  He was a two time Super Bowl Champion.  In his post football life he built up a successful business.  But as he approached the age of 50, he started having trouble putting together coherent sentences.  He was feeling depressed, and was also experiencing severe pain on the left side of his brain.  He eventually committed suicide.

Duerson’s death was tragic, but the method of his suicide was notable.  Instead of shooting himself in the head like most suicides by gun, he shot himself in the heart.  Duerson knew there was something wrong with his brain, and he wanted to be sure not to damage it further in his death so that it could be studied after the fact.

What researchers found was the Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.  CTE is a degenerative condition usually found in professional boxers.  It’s caused by repetitive brain injuries, an can lead to depression, memory loss, and even dementia.  Duerson wasn’t the first NFL player to succumb to CTE, more than 20 players showed evidence of it after their deaths.

Football is a brutal sport, and Duerson’s story shows how the effects on the body from playing it can last the rest of a player’s lifetime.  Depression, moodiness, violent behavior, and suicide are all too common among current and former NFL players.  The effect of concussions received during the game isn’t entirely understood, but long lasting harm can no longer be denied.

Even for players who avoid brain injuries and their consequences, the physical toll of the NFL is extreme.  Former Dolphins linebacker, Jason Taylor, once discussed at great length the medical work he would have to go through just to play through the pain during his career (warning:  that article is not for the feint of heart).  Taylor said the pain was so bad that,

““There was a period of a year and a half or two years when I couldn’t put my kids to bed,” he says. “My wife and I laugh about it. You have to bend down. I couldn’t with their weight. I would just hover. I would get as low as I could, and then drop them, and they’d bounce.”

Taylor tells about when his leg pain was so bad when he laid down that he tried sleeping while standing up on his stairwell.  But he doesn’t regret it.  He said,

“Would I do it all again? I would… If I had to sleep on the steps standing up for 15 years, I would do it.”

Players, of course, are highly compensated for putting their bodies on the line for the game.  NFL contracts sometimes reach the nine figure level.  The minimum pay a player can make is a pretty significant sum.  But then again, it has to.  The average career in the NFL is between 3 and 4 years (despite what the league office says).

So why do we support this game?  Why is it that every week, I sit down to watch, cheer, rave, and rant about every play?  The drama of the sport is unquestionably compelling, but that alone doesn’t justify supporting the system that puts players through the hell that they go through.  And let’s be clear, I am supporting that.  Everytime I turn on a game, everytime I buy a jersey, everytime I put my time, money, or voice into the NFL, I am tacitly supporting their product.  I am saying that I think it’s worthy.

The most common reason to dismiss the danger is that the players themselves choose it.  They want to be there, and they work hard to make it there.  I accepted that argument myself for a long time, but I recently had to change my mind on it.  My friend Sam and I were discussing this issue, and he argued that players can’t actually consent to the way they’re treated because they’re indoctrinated from a very young age to put the team ahead of their own health or needs.  One doesn’t become a top level player in any sport without working at it for years before hand.  And those years are spent within a culture that celebrates hard work, playing through pain, and giving everything to win.  By the time a player makes the NFL, are they really choosing of their own will, or are they just following the indoctrination that they’ve lived with for years?

Also, there’s the pressure of playing at the top level.  For every player starting on an NFL team, there’s a throng of players behind him that want that job.  Being injured means possibly losing your position to someone else.  How many people remember Don Majkowski?  Majkowski was a pretty good quarterback for Green Bay, leading the league in passing yards in 1989.  However, he tore a ligament in September of 1992 and was replaced by a young QB named Brett Favre.  Majkowski spent the rest of his career playing back-up for other teams.

Every time a player chooses to play through an injury and put themselves at further risk, they do so because of a combination of coming up within a sports culture that encourages risky behavior in the name of success, and the inherent threat of losing their position to someone else who is willing to play through the pain.  It strains credulity to believe that players’ consent is not driven by outside factors.

As mentioned earlier, there’s also the level of financial compensation players get.  Football may be rough on a player’s body, but a 10 year career can enough to live for years to come.  It’s tough to argue against that.  But again, when you hold up a pile of money next to someone’s life, that pile of money seems much smaller.

The fact is, I can’t really say why I support the game.  I’ve often considered walking away because the cost on the players’ lives is just too much.  But here I am, still thrilled at the chance to watch the Seahawks win a Super Bowl.

I think I feel there’s enough good in the game that it might make up for the problems.  I feel that the dangers can be mitigated, if not alleviated.  The question is whether or not the league office can be believed when they say they’re trying to make the game more safe.  Some of the changes they’re considering seem to imply a serious attention to the safety of their players.  But talk is cheap.  Are those changes actually going to be implemented?

Things in football were much worse, once upon a time.  A century ago the game was so dangerous that player deaths were not only possible, but somewhat common.  Teddy Roosevelt, hardly known for being a shrinking violet, called for the first reforms of the game in 1905.  The game has changed a lot over the years, and it will probably continue to change.  In effect, football goes through a constant battle to find the balance between an exciting game and the safety of its players.  Once upon a time, a few deaths a year was seen as perfectly acceptable.  Today, serious concussion issues lead people to think perhaps it’s time for the game to end forever.

I fall somewhere in the middle.  I love the game.  I love the community and the excitement.  I love the drama and the intrigue.  But I’m ready for some serious culture changes.  I think it’s time to stop lauding players for playing through injury.  I think it’s time to change the racist team names and mascots.  I think it’s time to start banning players who regularly injure other players.

Mostly, I think kids who start playing football – and their families – must be informed and educated about the dangers of the game.  Dave Duerson never knew what the game would do to his brain and his body when he started playing.  Today we are much better informed, and I think young players must benefit from that knowledge.

There’s a lot wrong with the sport that can be changed.  But I don’t think it’s time to end the game entirely.  There’s still enough good in the game that it’s worth saving.

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