Last weekend treated us to a nearly full slate of action-packed NFL playoff excitement. From the opening game at Denver Saturday morning, to the Colin Kaepernick highlight reel that night, through the Seahawk heartbreak Sunday afternoon, the National Football League never let us down. Sure, New England ended it on a sour note due to their domination of the Texans in Foxboro, but for the most part it was a home run for the league, and for the viewers another in the long line of memorable Divisional Weekends. There were long runs and longer passes, fantastic plays and finer finishes, and those who made a difference and those who wish they’d hadn’t. But like most NFL games, there were also injuries on the field, but it’s the ones you don’t see that have me thinking now, and how they’re dealt with that has me thinking about later.
Half-way through my first cup of coffee Sunday morning, I dazedly stumbled into an article by the Miami Herald’s Dan LeBatard. It was a piece about ex-Dolphin great and surefire Hall of Famer Jason Taylor, and his numerous bouts with injuries over the span of a 15-year NFL career. Sure, I’ve seen my share of stories revolving around the toll the game of football takes on its participants and know people firsthand who speak to that very toll, but amidst today’s concussion debate and on the horizon of an unknown future for the game so many of us love, I was forced to think long and hard about the price these guys pay, and whether or not I should feel okay about them paying it.
It’s a free country, I know that. I also know players such as Taylor are compensated nicely, aren’t directly forced to put themselves in harm’s way, and passionately love the very game that takes years from their lives. Football, for all its ills, teaches life lessons not easily taught outside the arena of sport and due to such paves the way to a successful life off the field in a way most who’ve not played it will never understand. It’s those lessons, coupled with the excitement between the lines that has most of the very people beaten-down by this sport, singing its praises in spite of just that. But my question, in light of what we know and what were learning more about, is whether more can be done to protect these guys without forever eliminating the very things that make the game great?
Taylor, like so many before him, speaks to the will to stay or get back on the field (and his complete lack of concern for the long-lasting effects of doing so) as the catalyst for many of his questionable decisions. During his time in Miami, he suffered through excruciatingly painful shots, risked amputation of his leg in an effort to “not miss time,” and played a handful of games with a catheter from his heart to his armpit to treat a staph infection stemming from the compartment syndrome which nearly led to the aforementioned amputation. He took pain medication in spite of side effects (chest pains, headaches, nausea, bloody stool, coughing up blood, vomit that looks like coffee grounds), underwent a series of epidurals in an effort to ease the pain from a herniated disc in his back, and spent a handful of years unable to put his young children to bed due to an inability to bend at the waist. All decisions made in an effort to play, and arguably decisions which shouldn’t be put in a player like Taylor’s hands.
A primary byproduct of the recent information regarding head trauma has been the new guidelines dealing with concussions. A player is no longer taken at his word regarding re-entry to a game, but rather at the mercy of the results revealed by a series of tests initiated by the team doctor. If he doesn’t pass the test, he doesn’t play anymore that day, maybe not the following week, or even longer based on his recovery or lack thereof. Such tests offer the player protection from himself during the very times he needs it most. As a competitor, I understand the desire to get back on the field, but it’s that intense desire that often leads players to make decisions that will be to their detriment later in life, and it’s those decisions that would be better made by someone with the player’s best interests in mind.
Days ago, it was discovered that Junior Seau – who shot and killed himself last summer – suffered from an accelerated brain disease thought to be the product of the repeated head trauma experienced over a 20-year career in the NFL. He’s nowhere near the first to have suffered from such and certainly won’t be the last. But it’s not okay that it’s happening and it’s certainly not okay that we’re letting it.
Football is a “tough” game and its participants are taught from day 1 that they’re expected to be as “tough” as the game itself. Self discipline and the ability to overcome adversity are admirable traits, and traits that resonate far beyond the gridiron, but stupidity in the face of sound rationale exceeds the boundaries of “tough,” and the mentality which leads to said stupidity is the root of football’s number one problem. In LeBatard’s column, Taylor speaks to the training room as enemy number one. He recalls thinking less of guys who continually inhabited it, and is proud that a quote he made famous (Be a player, not a patient) now resides on the Dolphins locker room wall. It’s sad to think that in a world begrudging of help, the one place designed to provide such is taught to be off limits.
That’s a problem, and one we need to resolve … for the game and the players who play its’ sake.
There are few who enjoy the game of football more than I. I enjoyed playing it as a kid, love watching it as an adult, and shutter at the thought of its extinction due to a mindset desperately in need of a second-look. Intelligence and toughness are not mutually exclusive. There’s a time to play through pain, but there’s also a time to defy ignorance in the face of life-changing circumstances. Playing with pain is one thing, exposing one’s self to life-altering damage in an attempt to play with pain is another.
NFL players have, do, and will continue to put themselves in harm’s way to play the game we love. They don’t care about where that will leave them 5, 10, or 20 years down the road, and you likely don’t either, but I’m beginning to question some of the sacrifices that they make, and hope that more will do the same. Believe it or not the game is at risk, and protecting its players might be the only way to save it … from itself.
I care, do you?