Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shocks to the system

I remember reading an article about a former NFL player who had committed suicide.  One particular sentence in the article gave me chills.  A forensic pathologist reported that the brain tissue in this man's brain was in a condition that one would expect of an 85-year old.

Andre Waters was 44 when he committed suicide, over five and a half years ago.

Maybe that one slipped your mind.

The "new" issue of the deteriorating mental health of several former NFL players is not really that new, after all.  While it flares again each time a former player commits suicide (even if concussion-related symptoms are not necessarily known, as is still the case with former San Diego Chargers star Junior Seau), this is not a thing that has mushroomed out of control in the last year or two.  Waters's suicide was over five and a half years ago, as noted above.  Former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Terry Long had committed suicide some months earlier, and his brain also showed signs of trauma likely connected to his football career.  Perhaps the first case of such brain injury causing severe repercussions later in a player's life (at least in this modern wave) was former Steelers center Mike Webster, whose condition was at least partly diagnosed during his lifetime (unlike most of the more recent cases) and who was the subject of litigation against the NFL over that damage.  Or perhaps one recalls another Steeler, Justin Strzelczyk, who died under strange circumstances in 2004.  Some cases have been shocking for the relative youth of those so diagnosed after death; Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was only 26 at the time of his death about two years ago, but his brain already showed significant signs of chronic traumatic encephalophy (CTE) when examined after his death (the only way such a diagnosis can be made conclusively).

Frankly, these cases only moved the needle minimally in terms of public perception, shocking as they may have been for a day or two in the general news cycle.  Only the suicide of Dave Duerson, formerly a defensive back for the Chicago Bears, seems to have registered with more force, probably because of the manner of Duerson's death; he killed himself with a shot to the heart, in order that his brain be in suitable condition for study after his death, which he specified in a final note.  The results of that study seemed to verify Duerson's fears.  Seau's suicide this year followed not long after the suicide of Ray Easterling, the former Atlanta Falcons defensive back, after a diagnosis of dementia that prompted him to participate in a study geared towards trying to find a way to diagnose and deal with such symptoms without the patient's death being required.  (Confession: I used that last link mostly because of its provenance in a tabloid from the United Kingdom; the story is not limited to American newspapers and sports sites, despite the prevalence of the condition and aftermath among American football players.)

So, by now, the three of you reading this are wondering; I know this guy calls himself a fool and all that, but is he really so foolish as to tangle with the NFL?  Sorry to disappoint you, but no.  At the risk of a metaphor in bad taste, I have no intention of banging my head against that particular wall.  No amount of protest, no amount of editorial castigation, not even congressional hearings were they to be initiated would make even the tiniest dent in the financial leviathan that is the NFL.  (Oddly, congressional committees seem to recognize this; they'll summon baseball players at the drop of a hat but have you heard peep one out of Congress over something that actually seems to be contributing to premature death?)  What will ever serve to humble the NFL?  Read on, faithful few; that discussion is later.

Besides, why should the NFL be the only target here?  Remember Chris Henry; he was only 26, but already showed a lot of CTE damage.  Do you really think all of it came from his time in the NFL?  To consider this issue fully one will have to consider the amount of damage that might occur in the average collegiate career, or even during high school, or maybe even before.

No, my consideration here is not the NFL or the NCAA or any particular high school association.  If you really expect that any such entity is just going to up and change its ways all of a sudden out of the goodness of its collective heart, well, John Calvin has a thing or two to say to you about human nature and sinfulness.

My concern is with those who are most responsible, ultimately, for perpetuating these organizations, seemingly without regard for the consequence a football career might well have for those who play the game.  (True, hockey has its own issues in this regard, but hockey's following is significantly smaller.)  As the old comic-strip philosopher Pogo might have put it, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

I referred to the NFL as a "financial leviathan"; how do you think it got that way?  People go to games, watch games on TV, buy the merchandise, spend, spend, spend.  College football, that bastion of "amateur" compe ... ha, ha, hahahahaha, I can't even type that, also rakes in money hand over fist, with the added benefit of not having to pay salaries to the ones actually playing (aside from scholarship money, which even at expensive schools is a bit less than even an NFL rookie makes).  Don't knock the drawing power of high school football, at least in certain parts of the country.

For that matter, going beyond the dollar signs, don't knock the cultural sway football holds in much of the country.  High school games on Friday night, college games on Saturday, pro games on Sunday; football offers a whole weekend of opportunity for ritual adoration, and plenty of devoted supplicants bow at the respective altars.  Devotion to one's particular team results in all manner of bizarre and even repulsive (to the non-initiated) acts of devotion, particularly as the games are played for higher and higher stakes -- championships of whatever legitimacy, bigger and bigger payouts, more and more bragging rights and opportunities to proclaim your team as Number One (or bizarrely, on the college level, to proclaim your conference as the best athletically, higher education be damned).

In the face of all of this, all I can do is ask a question:

What will it take?

What would have to happen to cause you to turn away from the spectacle and glamour and glitz of The Great God Football?  Is there a quota of early dementia cases?  Junior Seau not a famous enough possible-football-related-suicide for you?  Who would it have to be?  Tom Brady?  Peyton Manning?  God forbid, Tim Tebow?  (Think about this, those who boast that he gives out more punishment than he takes; look at that list of ex-player suicides and notice how many were defensive backs, known as hard hitters -- Duerson, Waters, Easterling...the ones who specialized in dishing out the punishment were apparently taking plenty of it as well.)  Or are suicides not enough?  Does some player or ex-player under the curse of early dementia have to take out a gun and start shooting a crowd of autograph seekers?  I am not ranting; quite seriously I want to know what it would take to get a devoted football fanatic to be so repulsed or disgusted or humiliated by the legacy of damage and death that that fan can no longer participate in the system, financially or devotionally.

Another possible question; is it now possible to still count oneself as a football fan or even fanatic, and yet prevent one's own son from getting involved in football?  Apparently it's now possible to be an NFL player or ex-player and start discouraging or preventing one's offspring from playing.  Is this a cognitive dissonance that others are starting to experience?  Or is there a cognitive dissonance between a team engaging in a bounty system designed to reward players for injuring other players and this whole business of long-term damage from playing the game?

Football is evidently as dangerous (or more so) than it has been since Theodore Roosevelt's time (he convened a "fix it or it's gone" summit in 1905 over an increasing number of deaths resulting from football; one of the innovations deriving at least partly from that summit was the forward pass); it is also, without doubt, as popular as it's ever been.  Can the two possibly coexist forever, or for much longer?

Of course, I have to ask such questions from the point of view I now have; a not-so-young man in training to be a pastor of some ilk in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  If a life of being a Christ-follower is to mean anything beyond showing up for the occasional Sunday morning, one eventually has to be challenged by the football monolith and its consumption of flesh.  How many brains is it o.k. to scramble while the NFL gropes for a technological solution, all the while churning out "NFL's Greatest Hits" videos and SportsCenter sequences?  What happens if a wave of players starts to make the same calculation Jacob Bell made; to get out while his marbles were still relatively intact?  What has to happen before the whole cultural and financial monolith that is football simply can in no way be found compatible with following Jesus Christ and living as Christ-imitative a life as possible?  (I'm sure Tim Tebow would have a truly godly rebuttal, but I'm also sure he doesn't read this blog.)  Where is the tipping point, and are we really capable of seeing it before we're well beyond it?

What if more and more parents decide to take the step of withholding their boys from the game?  Does it then become the province of the less affluent, the only way out of a life of grinding poverty, as it has been for so many wide receivers out of the sugar cane fields of south Florida?  Does it, in short, become boxing?  A spectacle in which the well off feast upon the spectacle supplied by the less fortunate?  Sounds pretty damned exploitative, and I use the word "damned" very much on purpose.

I freely confess to being a bit of an outsider here; I have no sons to prevent from playing the game, and I am one of those apostates who doesn't even watch the Super Bowl (in retrospect, this might have been influenced by Andre Waters's suicide, though I don't remember it being a conscious factor at the time), and my taste for the college game is diminishing yearly (for many reasons besides the concussion factor, but that is probably playing into it as well).  On the other hand, I suppose this is why I have to ask.  What is the cost that is too much to tolerate the game?  How long do we have to wait for somebody to invent the perfect helmet to prevent concussions?  At what point is the violence and destructiveness too much for one who would be a Christ-follower to accept?  And if we can't imagine such a point, what does that say about us?

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