The NFL is a beast. A massive, armored, mythical, all-consuming, white-walker-straight-out-of-game-of-thrones, beast. And it's invincible. Or at least that's what I thought. But like anything that's ever existed, there's usually a weakness to be found. The problem is that I just never wanted to look for it.
I am, you see, an NFL addict in the purest sense. There is no NFL "off-season" for me. There's 17 weeks of the regular season, the playoffs, the Superbowl, draft prep, the actual draft, training camp, the preseason, wash, rinse and repeat. There is no "off-season", because that would require me admitting that the NFL was ever... off. Which it's not.
Last year though, some chinks began to appear. Former players gathered en masse, filing a lawsuit relating to concussions and concussion-related problems post-career. Others, including some former superstars, committed suicide in a very public, and ultimately very tragic fashion. And so people began to wonder (some very loudly, in fact) about the long-term efficacy of the game. Then, almost as suddenly as it began, games (that mattered) were played, fantasy football kicked in, and the concussion class settled. And so the NFL was safe again (if it ever was even really at risk in the first place.)
And then DeAntre Turman happened. Then Damon Janes. Two high-schoolers whose adolescent lives that were tragically ended by hits on the football field, events that have perpetually been the NFL's biggest fear: having a player's life end live, as millions, and millions watched (which isn't unfounded. Think about the visceral public reaction to Kevin Ware breaking his leg in the NCAA tournament, and then magnify that reaction to infinity.)
It shouldn't go unnoticed that even as CNN was running the Bleacher Report version of Damon Janes' story all day, ESPN and NFL.com were both conspicuously silent. I kept checking and checking for verification... to no avail. But why? I guess that's fairly rhetorical at this point. The "why" is obvious. Kurt Warner has already stated very publicly and on the record that he doesn't want his kids playing the game, for this exact reason. The players are getting too strong and too fast, the collisions advancing beyond tackling and close to actual combustion. Which leaves me conflicted.
The part of the game that I love more than anything else is that I get to watch people perform at an athletic level beyond even the wildest of my wild dreams (which includes the big hits as much as it does the touchdowns). And yet death, as it always does, carries with it not only unyielding grief, but also some forced perspective. Football is dangerous. And, to the extent that all players' "accept the risk" of the game when they sign up to play, trading in a life (whether through death or permanent incapacitation) is never, ever worth it. Which again, is football's greatest fear. The league has been lucky so far. Or I guess, lucky in the sense that in the history of the NFL, only Chuck Hughes has died on the field (from a heart attack), and his cause of death was unrelated to the game itself (he had an arterial blockage and a blood clot that completely cut off circulation to his heart.) There have, however, been numerous head and back injuries. And for every Malcolm Floyd (who takes a scary hit and gets carted off, only to return with the team that night) there is an Eric LeGrand or a Kevin Everett who will never walk (or walk normally) again.
And so the league waits with bated breath, praying that something like this never happens (and, apparently, sweeping all mention of it under the rug when it does.) A part of it might simply be a matter of maturity. In high school, where most of these on-field deaths have happened, players are not as disciplined with their tackling. Sure people aren't as big, and the collisions not as fierce, but NFL players have had years and years to learn not only how to hit (and take a hit) but to train their body to do so as well. All it takes is one seemingly innocuous, head-lowering moment and a young man's life can end. And, as much as the league wants to ignore this, that's just the reality of the game. Does it owe a legal duty to them, as 100% voluntary participants, to aid in their protection at the high school, and even college level? No, probably not. But it could (and I think should) take steps to begin serious training at these levels. For a league that pulls in $9 billion annually and steadfastly maintains its commitment to player safety, it should know by now that this doesn't begin when players get to the NFL, but when they start playing the game itself. And while you can't put a numerical value on a life, if contributing even just $10 million a year would mean that even just one more child who might not have made it home, does, how can you say that's not worth it? Building a better (safer) football future is, after all, more than just saying the words. It's time to take action.
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