SportsProf

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"I Played Football So You Don't Have To."

Think about that quote.  And then, depending on how old you are, think about the days when boxing was one of the most popular sports and you heard that refrain from boxers.  That fighting was their way out of bad situations, so they fought so that their families could have a better life.  If you're old enough, you'll remember the discourse.

Fast forward to current times and what President Obama said in his interview with New Republic regarding whether, if he had a son, he'd encourage him to play football.  Obama, in essence, said that he worried that the game wasn't safe enough.  Predictably, many NFL players have said that they would encourage their kids, that it's a great game, either builds or reveals character, that they didn't sign up for tennis.  But one of the greatest of the current generation agrees with the President.  And the quote in the headline, pretty much (I might not have gotten it verbatim) is his.

Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens.

It's certainly a memorable one.  And a powerful one.  It's a statement, in essence, to his son, whom he won't encourage to play football. 

And that speaks volumes.  Because aside from the glory, not everyone makes big money.  Not everyone is set for life.  Most NFL players have careers of 3.5 years or less.  Many end up broke, divorced or depressed within five years after their careers end.  Many notables end up with serious health issues, including mental health issues, either at a young age (a University of Pennsylvania football player who took his own life a few years ago -- post-mortem tests indicated the type of brain diseases found in people like former Eagles' safety Andre Waters, who took his own life in his late forties), middle age (Junior Seau) or old age (such as, among many others, former Colts' tight end John Mackey. 

It isn't easy to figure out why everyone chooses a profession.  Do you do it because it's glamorous, lucrative, it's what your father and his father did, someone said you were good at it or should try it, someone you admired did it, it was the best alternative, what have you?  But beneath the pageantry and the glamorous year is a significant amount of wreckage, the detritus of an American culture that doesn't always account for the damage in preparation for, or after, the glorified events take place, especially football. 

John Adams once said something to the effect that one should teach his children to be doctors and lawyers and teachers so that their children can be artists and musicians.  Perhaps Ed Reed is thinking along similar lines -- do the job that you can make the most money at -- no matter how tough -- so that you can provide better, less violent opportunities for your kids.  Funny, because perhaps while many lawyers might fantasize what it might be like to be an NFL player, perhaps one NFL player is hoping that his son takes a job that involves indoor work without heavy lifting.

Back to the issue at hand -- the violent nature of the game.  The purists decry the "new" rules, saying that football is becoming touch football, too offense-oriented, and that defenders cannot hit anyone any more.  The challengers contend that how can we glorify a sport that has left so much visible human wreckage with the potential to leave a lot more (because many current and former players have not manifested symptoms of brain decay)?  Give the President credit for underscoring an important set of facts that probably hasn't gotten the full attention that it deserves, precisely because the American viewing public doesn't want to acknowledge that there's a flip, ugly side to their favorite game.  But the facts will persist, and they probably will increase. 

And then how will we feel when the neighborhood kid we coached in little league baseball shows up outside the local convenience store in his mid-twenties acting weird, unable to finish college or hold a job, because he gave the town glory on Friday nights?  Will we offer him a ride, a meal, a place to live?  Or will we walk by, nod, and thank our lucky stars than when our boys asked to play football, we had the sense to say no, or that our boys weren't interested. 

This issue goes far beyond the NFL and into the local ranks.  That there are no easy answers doesn't mean that there isn't a problem.

Just ask the several thousand or so NFL players who are suing the league in federal court because of their physical and mental problems, which, they argue, derive from their having played football at the highest level. 

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