If you're at all interested in the long-term effects of football on players' bodies and whether players are making fully informed decisions to be playing, you should be reading Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic. The other day he had a really informative timeline of what the NFL was saying about CTE throughout the last two decades. Then on Monday, he had a post and an interesting discussion about peoples' reactions to the growing awareness of just what players are doing to themselves for our entertainment, and what the costs for them will be for the rest of their lives.
I'm going to come back to Coates in a second, but first, let's talk about this article in the current issue of Esquire, which is about football players' pain and injuries from the perspective of the players. Here's our own Matt Hasselbeck talking about how he tells when he's hurt, if he's always hurting:
"A lot of times you don't know exactly when the injury happens, because you're taking drugs like Toradol or another kind of anti-inflam, so you're feeling good," says Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. "Or maybe you're dealing with a previous injury, like an ankle, and you're taking Toradol, so you're feeling a little bit better, but now all of a sudden everything is feeling a little bit better. Plus, you have the rush of adrenaline — so the injury might hurt a little, but you don't really realize it. You might not feel it till the next day, or you may feel it that night. Because your mind-set is to play through everything you can, unless you cannot. And usually, it's been my experience that when you come off the field after an injury, the trainer or the team doctor is meeting you. They're like, 'You haven't moved your arm in thirty seconds. What happened?' And you're like, 'I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine — leave me alone.' "
The whole article is fantastic, but, when you read it, you can't help but notice that the writer, Tom Junod, really respects these guys. He likens them to soldiers (even though they all live in a country where they could, you know, go be real soldiers). He lists their litanies of injuries, some going as far back as Pee Wee football, like he's telling you something secret and sacred. He shows you examples of really good guys who try to watch out for their teammates. I don't think there's anything wrong with this approach. After all, these guys are making real, tough sacrifices to entertain us, and pour a lot of money into people's pockets. Even if they're all there of their own free will and perfectly OK with things, we should know what we're requiring of them and respect the difficulties of their jobs.
But I point out the tone, because I think it's a high-water mark. Already, something is changing. Let's go back to Coates' discussion from Monday, where a commenter says, "These are grown men who dress up in outfits and play a violent and dangerous game for a living. Does anyone really think that they are fully functioning adults who can make mature adult decisions?"
I've already seen the "They know what they're signing up for, so we shouldn't bother to be concerned for them" argument. But I hadn't quite seen this level of contempt and condescension before — like there's something wrong with men who "dress up in outfits" and get to play a game for a living.
Of all the attitudes I thought might surface as we learn more about the dangers football players face, I was prepared for "They know what they're getting into," and "I can't watch it anymore," and "It kind of freaks me out but I still like to watch and am not going to stop," and "I'll continue to watch, but I won't let my kid play." I was not expecting, "They're so damaged mentally, what do you expect?" — as if football is a symptom of some underlying individual pathology.
But now that I have seen it stated so plainly, it does seem like that attitude circles around a lot of these discussions — like these men really don't deserve working conditions that are as safe as possible, because, obviously, if they're willing to do the work, there's something wrong with them that makes them not worth keeping safe. I think it's just normally not stated so clearly.
I wonder what it does to the game when that attitude becomes a force in NFL fandom? People will endure a lot of things for glory. And it's even true that desperate people will endure a lot of things for money.
But Jim McMahon can't remember his way home. His wife is afraid he will soon forget who she is. Junior Seau put a bullet through his chest, and he wasn't the first. The chronic pain and the forgetting and the desperation aren't happening to these men because they're getting a level of suffering they deserve. They didn't come already fucked up, so it's cool to fuck them up worse. In fact, I reject the idea that there's even some level of fucked-up-ness you can have that makes your suffering irrelevant.
But, moralizing aside, this attitude also presents a problem for the NFL, which needs kids to keep playing football because it needs players in the pipeline. If you thought that playing football was a sign that your kid was worthless and disposable, would you let him play?