May 2, 2012

Junior Seau's Warning

Junior Seau's death, like the death of anyone so young, is a tragedy. No one really knows the pain he must have been enduring- or the demons he was battling- before he took his own life. There are no easy answers for his friends, loved ones, and teammates (but if you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline NOW). There is no single cause for his death, but he's now a part of a somber, growing fraternity of NFL veterans who have taken their own lives, including Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling. In each of these cases, brain trauma from years of punishment on the gridiron appeared to be a contributing factor.

It's becoming clear that the game we love needs to adapt and evolve or it will perish. I have worshiped this sport for 30 years, but it simply will not exist in any recognizable form 30 years from now if it fails to achieve an acceptable level of safety. Will fans abandon the game? Of course not. In fact, as the game adapts to the 21st century MILLIONS of fans will decry the changes needed to ensure greater player safety. No- If the game dies, it will be because of litigation and (perhaps more importantly) parents refusing to let their children play football. If football is seen as inherently unsafe, the next Ray Lewis may instead become the next Ray Allen- and over time the quality of play will decline with the quality of the athletes on the field.

Over 100 years ago, college football was a death sport. In 1905, 18 college football players were KILLED on the field, and 159 were severely injured. At that point, President Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport via executive order. With the fear of TR now shaking them to the core, college football's leaders introduced rule changes that started to make football look like the game we love today: The forward pass was legalized, the "Flying V" was banned, and a "neutral zone" with 6 players on the line of scrimmage was established. By 1912, another spate of fatalities resulted in changing the value of field goals from 4 points to 3, and touchdowns from 5 points to 6. Like Don Draper said once: "Change is neither good nor bad, it simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy, a tantrum that says 'I want it the way it was,' or a dance that says, Look, something new!'"

I love big hits. I love the violence inherent to the game of football. But I don't love stupid, needless mayhem. I think that if the game can be made safer, we should make every effort to do so. I'd rather have football without kickoffs than no football at all. I'd rather have football without blows to the head than be forced to watch MLS games on fall Sundays. I'd rather see too many flags for late hits and head shots than too many players debilitated after their careers. The rules of the game will evolve in the decades to come- just like they always have. Hell, it used to be legal to clothes-line opposing players and SLAP THEM IN THE HEAD AS HARD AS YOU COULD. Anyone think we should go back to that era?

In addition to rule changes, there's hope that advances in technology can create helmets and pads that offer better protection for players, and that growing medical knowledge will increase our understanding of head injuries (and keep injured players off the field). Beyond that, the NFL MUST provide greater support and more comprehensive long-term health care for former players. It seems perverse to profit from these men risking their health on NFL fields only to leave them to fend for themselves once they are used up, doesn't it? The next time I hear anyone bitch about how much money NFL players make, I'll suggest that THEY run head first into a brick wall a few thousand times- That might shift their perspective.

I love this game- but I don't just love it for the violence. It CAN be safer and still be extremely compelling and entertaining. I want guys like Doug Baldwin, Earl Thomas and Matt Flynn to have long, healthy lives after football, and I don't want to have to explain to my grandchildren what football WAS- I want to watch it with them.

What do you think, sirs?