"I've been fuzzy-headed a lot. You use your head a lot, and at the end of my career, I'll probably be talking like Muhammad Ali." - St. Louis Rams offensive lineman Jason Smith
I should probably be writing about replacement referees, considering the timing, but that football-related problem has sorted itself out. The Monday Night disaster in Seattle last week brought the old refs back to work last night. The one problem that won't go away anytime soon is the league's mounting issues surrounding the health of its former players.
From Mike Webster to Junior Seau, tragic stories continue to emerge from the lives of former players battling depression, prescription drug abuse, concussion syndrome and constant pain. As a parent of a 5-year old son, I would frown on his decision if at 18 he decided to join the military rather than go to college, simply because it is a known, dangerous endeavor. Should I also frown on him for wanting to play football? Former NFL and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner has publicly stated that he does not want his sons to play football, in spite of the fact that his sons have their sites set on playing in the NFL just like their dad did.
I started at wide receiver for Tustin High School in Orange County. I wasn't big, but I was fast and could catch. Football played an important role in my upbringing, teaching me great life lessons about leadership, being a good teammate and camaraderie from sharing a certain amount of hardship on the field. I remember getting my bell rung often in practice and in games. It was part of the game. But, because of what we now know about football-related concussions, do I tell my son football is off limits, that a bell ringing could have long-term implications? What if he truly loves the game, as I did?
Ted Johnson, a former linebacker for the New England Patriots, has become one of the lead spokespeople in the charge to drive public awareness about the long-term effects of numerous concussions related to playing football. According to Johnson, it was the NFL's culture of toughness and the fear of being replaced in the lineup that drove him and his peers to quietly practice and play while seriously injured.
"When I had my concussions, I had two back to back, and that's where my problems started," Jonson said during a radio interview in 2009. "I played two more years and after I got my two [concussions] back-to-back, I'd have several a week for the next three years."
The most amount of noise regarding football related head injuries has come from former NFL players, but the problem is not unique to professionals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that teenage football players suffer nearly two million brain injuries each year. And a study published in 2011 by Neurosurgery, summarizes that high school football players who suffered two or more concussions reported much higher rates of headaches, dizziness and sleeping issues.
And the pain does not stop with the brain. Football players' bodies take a beating too. The Carolina Panthers' former defensive lineman Kris Jenkins likened NFL collisions to a car crash in a dramatic story printed in the New York Times. According to Jenkins, just getting out of bed on Mondays after a game was challenging. His body was typically sore for days after games. Now that he is retired, Jenkins is dealing with lingering pain through Pilates and acupuncture. Some, however, deal with their pain by medicating.
Ray Lucas, a former New York Jets quarterback who played in the NFL from 1996 - 2002, wasn't a first round draft pick. And he spent much of his career as a backup. In order to keep his job and make the roster each year, Lucas also played special teams, which is where the most violent collisions happen in football. His body took such a beating that he eventually became addicted to pain medication, at his lowest point popping up to 800 pills a month.
"I don't think the NFL, in any way, shape, or form, made me an addict," he said in a radio interview with Sports Byline USA host Ron Barr. "I didn't leave the NFL as an addict. What I did leave with was a very high tolerance for pain medication. And I think that was the cause of my going from 120 to 800 pills [per month]."
Do I want my son, assuming he has the talent to make the high school football team, to play football when there are horror stories related to the game all around us? Is it my place to say he can or can't? I think, as a parent, it is up to us to educate our children the best we can and provide them with the most options possible while advocating for safety measures with our children's Pop Warner, middle school and high school sports associations. If my kids decide, in full knowledge of the facts, to pursue a dangerous sport it behooves my wife and I to get out of their way. Life is dangerous. I have two daughters as well. Should I prevent them from playing soccer, which according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is the second most dangerous high school sport?