Author’s Note: This is a piece that originally ran on Verbal Infusion, another site that I write for. I’m running it here because it got some attention and generated good discussion there, and I think it can do the same here at TTAF. It came to mind again after reading this.
A Noiseless Collision
It’s funny how we prepare for the future without consciously thinking about it. I remember observing my teachers and my parents, sorting their behaviors into categories constantly, and deciding which things I would keep if I were a teacher or a parent myself. Keep this, drop that, keep this, definitely wouldn’t do that. Without having one jot of experience as either a parent or a teacher, I built pretty thorough ideologies regarding both jobs, and in keeping with the human tradition of arrogance and stupidity, I assumed that these ideologies were airtight.That’s not to say that I didn’t rationalize a few changes here or there. I mean, when I was eight, I might have thought it absurd that our teacher wouldn’t allow us to have food and drink at our desks as we worked, and I probably vowed to myself that if I were a teacher, I’d let my students eat and drink while they worked. At some point though, I figured out that eight-year-olds were a notch below pot-bellied pigs re: cleanliness and order, and changed my perspective. Same thing with bed time. It never made sense to me when I was sent to bed despite not being the least bit sleepy, and I’m sure that ten-year-old me vowed never to instill such a cruel, legalistic expectation for my kids. Ten-year-old me, however, had never tried to rouse a small child who’s running on too little sleep.This is how we operate. We think we know something, we develop foolishly resolute positions, and then experience comes along and tweaks (or capsizes altogether) our cute little expectations. And then when our view changes, we understand why. By our early twenties, I’d say most of us are so familiar with this cycle that we pay almost no attention to it anymore. Occasionally though, when some new experience runs into a particularly entrenched and long-held assumption, the collision and its aftermath can shock the hell out of you.
Baptism by Gridiron
I’m a huge sports fan, but I didn’t get into football until I was about thirteen. I was on vacation in Florida, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were changing uniforms (from that ghastly orange and white to the much cooler—hence their impact—pewter, red, and white combination they still wear), and the advertising campaign attached to these new-look Bucs won me over. I think I got that year’s version of Madden for Nintendo 64, learned the ins-and-outs of the game, and started watching both the NFL and college games obsessively, all within the next six months. My fandom developed rapidly through high school, and by college I had joined the legions of supporters who tuned in with remarkable consistency to watch the most popular sport in our country.
During the growth of my football-fandom, I looked back on my own football-less youth as something of a waste. My mom had never explicitly forbade me from playing the game, as I knew some had done, but she never presented the option to me with the same encouraging tone and barely-repressed excitement as baseball or basketball tryouts. Not that it bothered me at the time, but I later watched my friends play in high school and wished that I could be out there too, putting my six-feet, four-inch frame to good use. I caught a lot of game-winning touchdown passes in my imagination. Oh well, I thought. At least I won’t let my son feel the same way. I’ll make sure he has a chance to play football, to be tough like I never was. If he doesn’t like it, that’s fine, but I won’t deprive him the chance.
Yes, Even More than Scorpions
At some point in college, a few friends and I made up quizzes about ourselves and gave them to each other, mocking anyone who scored poorly. The narcissism is admittedly gag-inducing, but the quizzes did result in a few interesting contrasts between what people thought about us vs. what we thought about ourselves.
One of the questions on my quiz was: My greatest fear is _______________. The answer I had put on the key was “scorpions.” My friend Jonny’s answer was “Alzheimer’s.” I can’t remember if I gave him credit for that one, but he should’ve gotten full marks, because I am far more frightened of Alzheimer’s than I am of scorpions.
The thought of not recognizing my wife or my son or any of my friends scares me. The helplessness of it scares me. The loss of identity and intellectual capacity scares me. Alzheimer’s seems to me worse than any death I can imagine, because it might take your relationships and rob you of the ability to truly, actively love, years before you lose your life.
The Pain of Gain
I don’t know for sure when I first heard Earl Campbell’s story. Campbell was an All-Pro running back who had starred at the University of Texas before going on to great professional success with the Houston Oilers. During halftime of a Monday Night Football broadcast, I saw highlights of Campbell barreling through defensive lines, shaking linebackers, and bulldozing helpless defensive backs on his way to record rushing performances and a hall of fame career. And then I saw him struggle and fail to rise from the wheelchair he now uses to get around a lot of the time. I saw him try to play with his grandchildren and slump back, unable to comfortably stand. That was the first time I truly understood what those moms had been worried about all those years ago.Earl Campbell didn’t stop me from watching football, though. It was more like the sort of “isn’t-that-a-shame” moment you have when you pass a panhandler and throw a few coins into his cup. Unquestionably sad, wish you could do more, but these things happen. No, I kept watching football, and like everyone else who saw players go down in a heap after a hard hit, I expressed the appropriate amount of concern and hoped for news of negative x-rays and then I got back to the game.
But I’ve been following the lawsuits leveled against the NFL by former players who are suffering from dementia, severe depression, and mental illness. These men are in their 40s and 50s. The NFL, to my mind, hasn’t done nearly enough to support these men upon whose backs they have built their nine billion dollar-a-year monument. Experts have bickered back and forth about how far this responsibility should extend, many people—even former players—claiming that these players knew what they were getting into when they strapped on their helmets. I wonder if they could have known. From the sound of it, the NFL culture has so vociferously promoted (and promotes) the virtues of commitment, competitiveness, toughness, and passion that things like player well-being have been tossed unceremoniously onto the back burner. I heard a story about a former player, Dave Duerson, who suffered from severe depression, whose medication was ineffective, who committed suicide and donated his brain to science. He had shot himself in the chest so that his concussion-ravaged brain could be studied without impediment. And still, I watched.
I watched after hearing that a high school player, whose concussion had created an imperceptibly delicate set of conditions inside his skull, died weeks after the hits that caused the initial trauma. I watched after hearing former Bears QB Jim McMahon confess that his short-term memory has essentially been eradicated. I shook my head, pursed my lips, muttered “how terrible,” and then I watched some more.
Then I read up on the issue. This article jarred me especially. The New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal broke, and people came out of the woodwork to condemn the players and coaches who participated, including a suddenly Holier-Than-Thou league office, which for a few years has taken a real law and order approach to big hits (mainly by fining James Harrison every time he makes a tackle, sheds a blocker, or blinks), but which, again, built an immensely profitable sports empire on the backs of guys who, for decades, were urged not so privately to launch themselves like missiles into everyone wearing a different helmet (therefore making it really hard to buy their Look-Out-Boys-The-Sheriff’s-In-Town approach to the recent groundswell of player safety concerns).
Honestly though, if you’ve watched football with any regularity during the last thirty years and also expressed outrage at the Saints’ behavior, then you’re a dupe. That isn’t nice to say, but the NFL is basically one giant machismo-laden, hyper-adrenalized pissing contest, so if you really found it hard to believe that the competitors in said contest were above taking side bets to knock another competitor out of the game, it speaks either to your naiveté or your idiocy. I wasn’t outraged. I wasn’t shocked. That isn’t to say I condone the behavior, because it’s reprehensible. That said, it’s pretty consistent with what I’ve seen of the NFL’s violent culture.
All these years of exposure have led me to a rubber meets road moment. For years, I looked forward to giving my son the chance to play football, a chance that I had never seized. But now, after more than a decade of accumulated images and information, I’m changing course. That overprotective thing I promised myself once upon a time never to do, I’m doing. Benjamin may not like me for it. When his friends play and he wants to, he might curse my name, and I’ll have to live with that.
And yes, of course I know that any one of a million things could happen from which I will be unable to protect him. But by that logic, the possibility of a concussion from falling down the stairs means that I should have no problem with him jumping blindfolded on a trampoline. Danger exists, but I will not put him willfully into a situation that proves more and more dangerous with each CT scan.
I decided all of this a few months ago, and I thought that’s where it would stop. Benjamin won’t play football. No big deal for anyone, really, besides me and him. Except that I couldn’t stop thinking about Dave Duerson and chronic depression and dementia and Alzheimer’s. Then Junior Seau shot himself in the chest, just like Duerson. The truth hit me (in that bothersome way it has) that for years I had been watching a disturbing lottery, wherein all the participants drew a totally random ping pong ball, and consigned themselves to the fate written thereupon. Some drew a ball that said “15 years; 12 Pro-Bowls, a little twinge in your knee when it rains,” while some drew balls that said something more like “4 years; chronic headaches and mood swings you’d never experienced and a habit of leaving the grocery without half the things you went there to get.” At least one guy drew a ball that said “10 years; Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, plus so much psychic pain that you’d rather put a gun to your heart and pull the trigger than continue living.”
The losers in this lottery walk away bearing scars that in many cases lead them to experience what I regard as my greatest fear. To continue watching them play this game and simultaneously crossing my fingers that no one else suffers Dave Duerson’s fate is a fool’s errand, because for all their well-intentioned research, the NFL can’t create a helmet that keeps your brain from rattling around in your skull when a human missile launches himself head-first into your face mask because you dared try to catch a pass across the middle. They just can’t do it.
And neither can I. I’ve loved it for a long time, but I can’t reconcile what’s been revealed to me with the images of kids as young as five chasing after each other in football helmets, trying to jar the ball loose while their coach yells at them to put a helmet on the ball. I’m done with football. No watching, no fantasy, no more participation. My assumption has been shaken loose by experience, and I see no other choice.
So, if you want to make weekend plans for this fall, call me up. I’ll be totally free.
What say you? How much do you know about CTE, the lawsuit currently filed against the NFL regarding player safety and health benefits, does any of it sway the way you look at the game? Let us know in the comments.