Jacob Bell decided he’d had enough. Despite being just 31 years old and having signed a free agent contract to play for the Cincinnati Bengals, just miles south of his alma mater, Miami University, Bell decided to walk away.
As Bell told the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Joe Reedy, “Everyone has his price.” Bell had already been contemplating his future. When he heard of the suicide of NFL great Junior Seau, he decided he’d paid a big enough price already. He would walk away from millions of dollars in future earnings, but he would walk away… while he could.
Seau’s death has brought to the forefront an ongoing debate about the relative safety of the game of football, and to some degree, the ethical viability of sanctioning the weekly violence that some believe permanently damages many of its players.
For all the talk about brain research and concussions though, there remain some salient points that need not be forgotten.
Football is a violent sport, of that there can be no debate. Since its inception, it has been a game of controlled violence. As each year passes, bigger, stronger and faster men engage in full-speed collisions upwards of 130 times every Sunday during the season. That doesn’t even account for the collisions that occur in practice.
When two men each weighing north of 200 pounds hit each other while running full speed, no amount of protective equipment, no league imposed rule or fine is going to eliminate the damage done to muscles, bones, joints, and yes, on occasion, the brain.
And while we can debate the prudence in allowing children, who aren’t fully grown physically or emotionally ready to make the choice to play freely, to participate in this violence, the men for whom we cheer on Sundays have done so in exchange for minor fortunes. These are grown men who have opted to “pay the price” with their bodies so that they might have access to a financial windfall not available to the public that cheers them.
For the over 100 signatories on a lawsuit claiming negligence on behalf of the NFL for not warning them about the risks involved playing the sport, I say “get lost.” While many undoubtedly suffer post career effects that are debilitating, no former player in their right mind can claim in seriousness they were unaware of the risks.
While the brain studies are fairly recent, it’s no real epiphany that taking repeated shots to the head are bad for one’s long-term health. As for the rest, anyone who has ever shaken hands with former Bengals great Anthony Munoz can see what a decade’s worth of trench warfare has done for his fingers.
In fact, I’m confident there are retired players from every franchise who can share with current players the scars, the permanent limps and the other consequences of this risky career.
As for the Seau situation and the discussion surrounding brain injuries, that is worthwhile. But it mustn’t take place in a vacuum. There are a multitude of systemic factors that are in play when individuals like Seau decide to take their own lives.
One such factor is the culture of football. Most of the players who reach the NFL have been “great” at the sport their entire lives. That has afforded them a degree of notoriety as well as other “perks” throughout their careers in high school and in college. In short, they’ve lived privileged lives and existed within a culture that often fails to hold them to the same degree of accountability that is present for the rest of society.
Then, even after a “long” NFL career, the player is faced some time in his mid-thirties with the prospects of no longer being a part of that system. Gone are the routines and the support systems that are present while part of the team. Gone is the sense of purpose and camaraderie. In their place, come the shock of the “real world” complete with personal and family responsibilities. That can produce problems if the player hasn’t made plans to cope with this transition.
Another factor is the player’s own heredity and “family of origin” issues. With regard to depression, which is the root diagnosis being discussed here, these factors are always a part of any diagnosis. A good number of NFL players come from backgrounds and families that are less than ideal. To pretend that these issues somehow go away because of wealth or one’s status as a football player is ludicrous.
I never knew Junior Seau nor his family, so this is by no means a judgment on him or his family. But Seau was one of seven children who grew up poor in Los Angeles. Junior took a track that made him a star in high school, then at USC and finally the NFL. Seau’s younger brother, Tony, ended up being incarcerated for his role in a gang shooting and was later shot in the head himself in 2002. Again, not to attempt a family diagnosis, but it would appear that Junior probably carried around some degree of baggage from his childhood. While money and fame can often mask these issues, it doesn’t make them disappear.
NFL players aren’t coal miners, forced into a toiling existence with the threat of black lung disease or mine collapses. They’re not the unskilled laborers of bygone days who lost limbs in machinery or died in explosions in factories. These workers took what little money they could get doing these risky jobs because it was all they could do.
NFL players know what the risk is. Even if one enjoys a concussion-free career, he might have permanent disfigurement or pain in some other part of the body. That’s the nature of the game.
And in exchange, they get the chance to get paid millions of dollars. That’s the cost of doing business in the NFL.
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