Might As Well Get This One Out Of The Way Early in the Superbowl Hype Fortnight
Consider this a diversion from real life. Still a downer, a bit, (or perhaps just a PGO). But at least it’s guaranteed Bachmann-free. Give me that….
As a born-and-raised Bay Area kid, I grew up on Brodie, Stabler, Lamonica, Plunkett — and then the glorious experience of watching Joe Montana. Steve Young was the lagniappe. With all that, it took me a decade or two after arriving in Boston to start actually caring about the Pats, and we all know how that has turned out. All in all, I’ve had a sunlit time as a fan of the NFL, Franco F***K*** Harris and his maculate reception notwithstanding.
But over the last few years — and this year more — I’ve found it harder and harder to stick with the games. I used to joke about how pro football was just 22 supremely fit young men, all taller, faster, stronger and just flat out more wonderful physically that I ever could have been pounding on each other themselves for my entertainment. It wasn’t funny then, and it is less so now.
How not funny? It happens that yesterday I was at the doctor’s office, waiting for one of those indignities visited up on those of us on the far side of fifty, when I came upon that eternal resource of the waiting room: old issues of Sports Illustrated.
I picked up one from last September, and came across this piece by Selena Roberts. Here’s her lede:
This couldn’t be the right room. It was only a clinic door, but when he swung it open, Wesley Walls passed through a portal to his future. He stood among bingo-hall sharks with their sock-hop memories, their early-bird dinner plans and their new ceramic hips. Just 41 in December 2007—four years removed from a career as a Pro Bowl tight end—Walls found himself stretching with the oldies after hip-replacement surgery at a facility in Charlotte. “I was doing physical therapy with some of my parents’ friends,” he told me six months after his surgery. “It was like, Hey, you’re that Walls kid, right? I thought, Man, I am too young to be in here. This can’t be happening, not this soon.
Roberts trades in the controversial number that each year playing in the NFL costs the player one – three years of life expectancy. On a quick search I haven’t been able to turn up any real primary data — it may be out there (consider this a bleg), but we already know plenty about what an NFL career does to the living. Reading Roberts reminded me of the first story to really erode my ability to watch the game with unalloyed eagerness: the Boston Globe’s 2007 story about Ted Johnson’s descent into dementia. (In some ways, this story is even more depressing, given the age of player studied.)
The dementia reports are heartbreaking of course, but at least there does seem to have been some coherent response from the league and the players association — a push for better helmets, new rules, all that. But the central message of Roberts’ piece is obvious, really: the game played properly is a meat grinder.
That said, all the familiar arguments apply: professional football players are well compensated adults who choose and (most of them) love what they do. The facts here aren’t hard to track down: any professional player knows, or should, that careers are short and injuries are an inescable part of the game.
I’d bet it is true that most rookies coming into the league can’t or don’t begin to imagine lives at forty constrained by multiple knee operations or what have you — but twenty something males (and women too, of course — but that’s for some other post) in lots of lines of work get to make decisions that to their older selves will seem dumb as hell. Why should football players be singled out for enforced wisdom?
They shouldn’t — and Roberts wasn’t and I am not arguing that the game should die to protect young men who’ve made the calculation (whether they know they’ve done so or not).
Rather, the issue in that article was the proposed shift to an eighteen game regular season in the NFL. Roberts pointed out that such a shift adds the equivalent of a year of play every eight…and it would ensure shorter careers and less time for fans to watch any great players whose prime should properly by measured in hits endured rather than seasons completed.
So the only affirmative claim I’m going to make in this post is that Roberts, and Peter King and the lots of others who have argued this are absolutely right: leave the game alone. Roger Goodell and the owners have laid the proposed shift on the fans; it is said we want more real contests and fewer exhibitions. To be as charitable as possible in the face of the obvious, that justificaton omits the fact that two more games means an equivalent boost in the cash the owners get to pull off the game.
So, despite the fact that no one who gets to decide here cares what this fan thinks, I’m saying no. Don’t lay that sh*t on me. Sixteen contests per season (plus up to four more for the good teams) are enough. I want the players whose remarkable skills have given me so much excitement over a lot of years to last. Even more: I’d like to think that they will have better than a puncher’s chance of being able to lift a grandkid over their shoulders later on.
That’s all — but for this: I make no claim for anyone else, and I have no wish to tell the next supremely gifted and smart young athlete how to live his life. But I get to decide how I want to live mine. I’m 52 now, certainly not wise, but I hope more mindful of taking my pleasures at no one else’s expense.
I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to watch the game.
Images: Thomas Eakins, The Wrestlers, 1899.
François Boucher (1703-1770), after Paolo Veronese, Allegory of Wisdom and Strength: The Choice of Hercules or Hercules and Omphale, c. 1750.