I really didn’t want to write this column. I was all set to do a piece that profiled a couple of the Chiefs’ undrafted free agents that they signed, providing you some background information on them and telling you why I think they may have an outside shot at making the roster. The problem is, since Wednesday’s tragic passing of Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau from an apparent suicide, the airwaves have been flooded with reaction to this tragic loss and what the NFL should do moving forward about the growing problem of what is now perceived to be football-related deaths. Every time ESPN or local sports radio brings it up, my initial reaction is similar to what many of you are thinking as you read this introduction:
“Enough already! I just want my daily dose of sports, not some tragic moral dilemma! Yes, it’s sad, but can’t we get back to listening to Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. argue over who had the best draft?”
Trust me, I get it. I’m right there with you. The entire subject is just….well “icky.” We turn to sports for entertainment. Our lives are stressful and complicated enough. The last thing we need is to turn on ESPN and have someone make us feel guilty about enjoying our favorite escape from our real world problems. Look, at this point we can’t even say for sure that Junior Seau taking his own life had anything to do with his football career, right? I mean, yes, the data we have now certainly points toward the possibility of it being a factor, but unless anyone reading this knew him personally, we really know nothing about who he was outside of the public eye. We know that concussions make depression more likely and depression makes suicide more likely, but unless some results are released regarding the condition of the brain of the deceased, each case is just speculation. So since we don’t know for sure, we should just let it fade from our consciousness and go back to enjoying our sports again.
Go back to being entertained. Right?
That’s where I’m getting stuck. That’s why I’m writing about this and not some no-name undrafted fullback that I think fellow Chiefs die-hards might be able to rally behind. Every time I tell myself to “just let it go,” I just picture Russel Crowe’s character Maximus from Gladiator yelling at the crowd, “Are you not entertained?!?!”
I think its safe to say that our modern society would never condone actual gladiator battles as part of our main stream culture. The idea of people gathering to watch men fight to the death for entertainment would be considered barbaric. But as the evidence mounts about what football is doing to the men who play it, the term “Gladiators of the Grid Iron” now seems disturbingly accurate. The reason the NFL has escaped this negative stigma for so long is because the gladiators don’t actually die in the arena in front of the spectators. They disappear into the shadows and by the time their wounds catch up to them, the spotlight has moved on to a new generation of gladiators.
So at this point you’re probably expecting some moral sales pitch about how we should change football so that it’s safer for the players. I mean, any decent human being shouldn’t be comfortable sitting around cheering for people to give each other life altering injuries, right?
Sadly (at least morally speaking), I’m not going to do that. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t want football to change, at least not on the field. I don’t want them to take out the kickoff because more people get hurt on that play. I don’t want the NFL to change into some glorified arena league where teams just go up and down the field every drive and rarely does anybody really hit anyone else. I mean let’s be honest, the NFL is currently discussing not playing the Pro Bowl at all because the product is so bad. Why is it bad? Because nobody is hitting anyone.
Personal confession here, you’re not exactly reading the column of some uber-masculine former football player that wants the game to be played the way he played it. I didn’t even play football in high school. My senior year I was a 160-pound band geek. I’m still a band geek (I’ve just gone pro) although my 160-pound days are a thing of the past, but to me my favorite type of football is still “smash mouth.” Maybe it’s a midwest thing. Maybe it’s the fact that I fell in love with the game watching guys like Christian Okoye and Derrick Thomas. I love big hits. I love pounding the football.
Even though I know and understand what this sport that I love is doing to the players I so closely follow, I don’t want the game to change. Come this fall, if Eric Berry lays out a WR that’s trying to go across the middle on my beloved Chiefs, I will stand up and cheer just like the crazed mobs at the Colosseum did when a gladiator fell. If Tamba Hali comes off the edge and levels Peyton Manning so hard that he’s shaken up on the play, I’ll probably be jumping up and down going “Manning’s Down!!! Manning’s Down!!!” Just like Anthony Hargrove got caught doing in the Saints AFC championship game against Brett Favre and the Vikings that has landed him in hot water as part of the bounty scandal.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you feel the same way.
Does that make us horribly selfish people? That we’d rather be entertained to the fullest extent regardless of the effects on those that are entertaining us?
I don’t know what the answer to that question is. I know that today’s generation of football players now know what they are signing up for. They know the dangers, and they do it willingly. Many of them get paid more in one season than many of us will make in our entire life. So ultimately, I think there is less sympathy for today’s players than there is for the “old school” players. I think most of us feel bad for the players that really put the league on the map back when the side effects weren’t yet known and players made MUCH less than the multi-million dollar deals that are so common today.
So what is the solution?
Well I think there are three steps that need to happen:
1. The NFL needs to have a full lifetime healthcare plan for players that spend a minimum of four years in the league (the average NFL career). They can argue over what is covered, deductibles, and all the other details, but no player that had a sustained NFL career should be unable to get treatment if they want it. Whether it’s a bad back, bad knees, or mental issues stemming from concussions, players should always be able to get treatment. This coverage should go into immediate effect for all former players. If that means that current players get less money, so be it. Eventually they will get that money back when they are the ones whose bodies are failing them.
2. The NFL should provide every player that comes into the league with the medical data of what the NFL does to the average player health wise. Make sure every player knows exactly what they are signing up for and then actually have them sign something saying that they understand the risks. If the NFL is telling players up front what could happen, paying them well, and providing them with lifetime healthcare plans to help with the side effects, then no one can complain. They know the risks, so it’s their decision.
3. This is the hard one, but probably the most important of all. It’s also where we as members of society can play a huge part. We have to get past the stigma of asking for help being a sign of weakness. Current ESPN analyst and Junior Seau’s former Charger teammate Marcellus Wiley told a story of Seau getting treatments for injuries at his own home instead of at the team facilities because he didn’t want anyone to see him as hurting or “weak.” It’s not a huge leap to assume that he probably felt the same shame about needing psychiatric help. He didn’t want anyone to know he was hurting. He didn’t want anyone to think he was “weak.”
This is where I think we as a society have got it all wrong. If admitting that you need help is so scary for people to do, then doesn’t it take courage to step forward and actually do it? Isn’t that the very definition of courage? Doing something despite the fact that you’re scared or unsure of what the outcome will be. So why do we seem to think it will be seen as a sign of weakness?
That’s the message that should be playing constantly on ESPN in the wake of a tragedy like this. Instead of spending all the time talking about how amazing the person that is gone was, how about talking about how players in the future need to come forward and set an example of not being ashamed to ask for help?
I mean how much more strength and courage would it have taken for Junior Seau to go public with his depression and say “I don’t want to be another Dave Duerson and so I’ve decided to come forward and admit I need help. Hopefully other players that are struggling will see this and have the strength to come forward too before we lose more of our brothers to this tragedy.”
Would anyone have thought less of Junior Seau if he’d done that? Would anyone have thought to themselves “Man, I can’t believe someone I used to admire is so weak!” Or would you have thought “Wow, that takes a lot of guts to come forward and admit something like that.” I know I would have thought the latter. If a message like that became main stream it could create a culture where more players would feel comfortable to come forward, but someone has to be brave enough to lead the way.
And who knows, maybe having a big name football legend come forward with a confession like that could even have an impact on non-football players who are struggling with depression. Maybe seeing someone they admire admit they have a problem would help them to find the strength to do the same. I mean if a confession like that from a football player helped one person save their life from a similar tragedy wouldn’t that be a greater victory than any TD they ever scored on a field?
It’s a heavy subject. It’s not much fun to talk about, but I think something has to be done.
Maybe not today though, I’m kind of burnt out at this point. I think I’m going to turn on ESPN and see if there are any new NFL tidbits to catch up on, read some of the other articles here at AA, and check out the Chiefs website to see if they have anything new posted.
I need to feed my football addiction. I feel like being entertained.
And don’t worry, next week I’ll be back to talking about the game itself. That way you can be entertained, too.
As always, thanks for reading and GO CHIEFS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!