Uncomfortable Thoughts While Watching Football

With the 40th pick in our fantasy football draft, my friend Andy selected New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman.

The pick received some nods, most figure Edelman will be good. He plays for our hometown New England, which is a bonus to cheer for in fantasy.

But I couldn’t shake one thought.

Last year’s Super Bowl has one of the most-played football highlights in history. Malcolm Butler, a former practice squad guy, intercepting superstar Russell Wilson to seal a Patriots victory. But it’s a few plays prior which loops in my mind.

Third-and-14 from deep in New England territory, about 11 minutes to go in the 2014 season. Patriots down by two scores. Tom Brady hits Edelman deep down the middle for a 21-yard, season-saving first down.

Also on that play: Edelman is annihilated by Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. I’m pretty sure he’s concussed. He looks woozy running and can’t maintain balance as he tries to stand. (The Associated Press reported he underwent concussion protocol testing after that drive and passed. Sure.)

Back to my porch and Andy’s drafting of Edelman. Though, that could’ve been any fantasy draft with any group of friends. Still, the thought I had is this:

My friends and I, like so many football fans across the nation, salivate at how many touchdowns someone will score. Yet we hardly consider, “That’s the guy who got concussed last year.”

I didn’t want to be “That Guy,” so I didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t shake the thought.

I thought of all the stories I’d read, or seen in documentaries on TV. About players who’d slowly lost their bodies and minds and freedom.

I know about Steelers legend Mike Webster. I know about Bears great Dave Duerson. About Vikings player Fred McNeill, highschooler Owen Thomas, Hall of Famer Junior Seau. About the countless other players who dealt with their pain alone and away from the media, that there are most likely many more players who lost so much to the game of football.

About every NFL star and high school scrub with concussion-related CTE mentioned in the NFL-damning book, League of Denial. I know that 76 of 79 deceased NFL players studied by Dr. Ann McKee, one of the central characters in the League of Denial, had CTE. I know LeBron James, possibly the world’s greatest athlete, won’t let his kid’s play football.

Yet I’m impatient with giddy anticipation for the Patriots to kickoff the 2015 NFL season on Thursday.

This sport that I love so much and devote time—way too much time—to is inherently dangerous. Football has brought me so much: Things to write about, time with my mother, unexpected time and bonding with my sister, a sport to love, heroes, villains, joy, frustration, pride, sorrow, the best (and most unpredictable) reality TV ever.

Yet it’s a parasite.

As I sit on the couch watching football, where the only injury I can sustain is pulling a muscle by leaning over to scoop a chip into dip, men are risking lives for livelihood on the screen before me. It feels strangely like a 21st-century, High Definition version of gladiator fights. Except in gladiator fights injuries are easily seen in red pools. The most devastating football injuries aren’t seen at all.

Most Sundays I don’t think about concussions. On those that I do, I rationalize it. That guy, whoever he is on the field, is roughly my age but he’s making a minimum of $435,000 per year while I try to make a living by writing for free and deepening debt in college.

I marginalize, and I am not proud of it.

Part of me argues that, since we know so much now about CTE and concussions that the players accept that responsibility and that risk when they step onto the football field. I think of Chris Borland, the 24-year-old former 49ers linebacker who walked away from an NFL career and multimillions in fear of brain injury. I’ve tried to think of it from his perspective: He trained his entire life to become one of the nine children out of every 10,000 to make the NFL. Borland left money, fame, his entire life’s work out of fear. So if everyone else knows about it, they should quit too if they’re worried.

But it’s not that simple. Whether pride, or drive, or financial necessity keeps them in the game, some players need the sport. It’s not fair to simply expect them to stop.

I wonder if marginalization, or at least the ability to forget about the implication of each hit, is a necessary skill for football fans. If a sport like that can survive.

Then I think about those who didn’t even make it to the NFL. The men who had football taken from them by brain injuries before they could even make that $435,000 minimum salary. Like Tyler Marona, who left Syracuse because they wouldn’t let him play football anymore.

I think of the future. At 50, there is a greater likelihood I’ll have my health than any NFL player does. But I don’t like that thought process. Watching Jamaal Charles take a hand off is harder that way.

Maybe it’s easier for me to think about concussions as a case study and statistics because I don’t really know the names I listed above. I learned of them by reading, but I can’t remember highlights, or how I felt when they played.

What if I read that story one day and it’s not Duerson or McNeill? What if it’s Richard Sherman or Russell Wilson or JJ Watt? What if it’s the men that I admire so, the men who absorb these savage hits, and they’re like the men I read about now? Do I feel guilty for paying to see them play and therefore supporting the structure which allowed their minds to fail?

What if, one day, it’s Julian Edelman? What happens then? Does guilt taint pride when I think of that Super Bowl?

This is uncomfortable. I love football. I don’t like thinking about it like this, but I wrote this post looking for something to take comfort in, a rational that explains why I feel guilty for cheering. Something that would make me feel better about watching football and quiet the uneasiness I feel when I’m not wrapped up in the drama. When I’m watching football and I’m just seeing brains hitting one another and men in wheelchairs and men who forget their wives’ names and cannot physically play with their children.

I didn’t find that comfort. I don’t think I ever will.

Yet on Thursday when the Patriots play, and every subsequent Sunday or Monday night, I’ll try to push those thoughts from my head as I sit to watch football.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

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