Which is it?
Are we at a stage where the growing awareness as to just how debilitating a life in football can be will lead to the eventual extinction of the sport? Or will those who love playing it soldier on in macho fashion, unafraid of the quite possible dire circumstances that await them?
The news is never good. It is now an undeniable fact that a large number of people who play America’s favorite game have more to worry about than bum knees, shoulders, elbows, and ankles, which have always been part of the deal. They might sustain brain damage. They might enter into a miserable, unimaginable life as early as their 40s. They might die prematurely, leaving behind grieving family and friends. No, this is not the fate of every NFL player. But is this a life anyone would want? Why risk it?
The determination to flout the odds was on full display at New York Jets training camp this past week. Two Jets players, one a veteran and one a rookie, expressed the same thought. If they were to die playing football, well, so what? That’s what they love to do. That’s the life they’ve chosen.
Morris Claiborne is a 27-year old cornerback. He has had three documented concussions (key word: “documented”). Here is what he told Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News: “A lot of people don’t believe me when I say this. But I would die out there on that football field. This is my life. This is what I do. I give it all. I would die out there. If I was concussed that bad where they said you can’t go back out there or you’ll potentially lose your life, I gotta go. I gotta go play. I gotta go play.”
All right, already, Mo. We get it.
Jamal Adams is the current Jets No. 1 pick. He, too, is a cornerback. He, too, like Claiborne, is a product of LSU. Just saying. And here is his contribution to the concussion/CTE dialogue: “I can speak for a lot of guys that play the game. We live and breathe [football] and this is what we’re so passionate about. Literally, if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.”
He was sitting next to commissioner Roger Goodell as he spoke. He was applauded wildly by Jets fans present at the interview session.
How brave. How noble. How utterly stupid.
Among those weighing in on this subject were the ex-wife of Justin Strzelczk, the former Steeler who, racked with CTE, ended his life at age 36 by driving his pickup truck into oncoming traffic on the New York State Thruway. Said Strzelczk’s ex-wife, Keana McMahon, “I bet my kids would want their father here. I know in my heart of hearts that Justin would have wanted to see his daughter get married someday or see his son graduate from college, not dying on a football field. To me, [Adams] is” — naughty word for defecating — “on his grave.”
Echoing that thought was the attorney representing the family of the late Dave Duerson, the Chicago Bears safety who shot himself in the chest in order that his brain be donated to the study of CTE. “Unfortunately, these players don’t die on the playing field in a sudden-death fashion,’’ said Thomas Demetrio. “They die a horrible death later in life, and leading up to in many cases, suicide. This is not a badge of honor for the gladiator who played 13 years in the NFL, or two weeks . . . I would recommend this rookie [Adams] that he go see the movie, ‘Concussion.’ ”
Ah yes, “Concussion.” Very powerful and impressive movie, that. Too bad the people who should have seen it stayed away.
I’m not telling anyone to stop watching football. I’m not going to stop watching football. I can enable as well as the next guy, and that’s exactly what watching football in the face of the evidence that it is a brutal, barbaric exercise really is: enabling.
But the fact is that encouraging any young person to play football at all is projecting them into a world fraught with physical danger, and not just to limbs. Football apologists say we need more study, but, c’mon. Stop it. The evidence we already have is irrefutable. Yes, people are trying desperately to make the game safer. And it always can be made safer. But it can never be made safe. I said, “never.”
The truth is these players really are gladiators, risking their health and well-being for our entertainment. There is nothing comparable, not even hockey, where concussions are also an occupational hazard. Football stands apart. It’s all about violence. I truly believe that if we were all starting from scratch and the rules of this new game were presented for our perusal, a majority of people would say, “What? This is legal?”
I have said for years that the mothers of America could shut football down tomorrow. They could say, “My boy’s not playing,” and that would be that. But we know we’re a long way from that ever happening.
In the meantime, it would be nice if Morris Claiborne and Jamal Adams actually did have an occasional thought in their heads that didn’t involve football. Oh, but that gets us into the topic of being a so-called “student-athlete,” and that’s a discussion for another day.
I do want to go on record as saying I hope their fatalistic declaration remains an abstract concept. Someone has to look out for their welfare.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.