The End of Football.
Once the whistles were blown and men started thudding into one another again, Robert Griffin III summoned all of that magic and most everyone forgot about his head in favor of his arm and legs.
It’s easy to forget about the men – and their heads – beneath all that armor. They are our conquering heroes for only a few dozen Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays of their often truncated lives.
Then they move out of the lights and into the shadows and then into the fog. For far too many of them, they spend the rest of their days in darkness.
That’s why it’s best to not let Griffin’s scintillating performance Sunday overshadow the damage he did to his brain the previous Sunday (someone actually used that as evidence that concerns about his concussion were “unwarranted”) or the dozens of others around the league who were “shaken up” and went back into the game for 3rd and 5.
A few months ago, we recorded a podcast with Ta-Nehisi wherein I mounted a weak defense for the use of football in a civilized society. I said football couldn’t be “cockfighting,” as Malcolm Gladwell once wrote, because the birds had no choice in the matter.
Also, because I still romanticize my youth and long-lost athleticism, I like to believe that I would do it all over again, damn the known – at least four concussions, a degenerative neck condition, and arthritis in the ol’ joints – and unknown consequences.
Of course, that’s beside the point.
I’m not sure there is a way to make football safer for its participants. I’m not sure the players spend much time worrying about any of the possible safety precautions. And I’m fairly certain the NFL can’t get past its impulse to bring in more revenue at the expense of The Help, even if many of their officials sincerely want to prevent their players from traumatic brain injuries.
There are the many loopholes that allow players to continue playing with head injuries. The NFL, this year, started putting on regular Thursday night games despite concerns that players don’t have enough time to heal themselves (yes, that is a Jason Whitlock link) from the previous Sunday. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is still mulling over the idea of an 18-game season.
“Forever forward, forever football,” right? They introduced a few rules to keep the peace, after all. And once they got rolling, they never looked back.
Never let it be said that words don’t matter.
The players know this better than anyone else, if for more cynical reasons. If they miss enough plays, teams will find someone else who won’t. The show goes on.
It’s the reason Pugh rushed back into the game at the first opportunity last Sunday. Why James Harrison revealed earlier this week that he’s had “double-digit concussions” but has never officially missed a game in his decade-long career with that injury. Why Robert Woods, who will be playing in the NFL next year, suffered what looked an awful lot like a concussion a few weeks ago but returned to the game and was praised for it by his coach.
In the end, we all know what really matters out there.
But away from the field, and down the line, the rest of us should be asking whether this is something we should be supporting.
There are not just millionaire cyborgs putting their bodies and livelihoods on the line. They are kids like Texas A&M’s Steven Campbell, who “doesn’t feel like himself,” and even a Florida high-schooler and Florida State recruit, who suffered enough concussions in his career that it ended before he turned 19.
These are not well-compensated professionals. We’re talking about young men who fell far short of their gridiron dreams and will still spend the rest of their days wondering if and when their minds will betray them because of collisions from years ago.
As part of my day job, I spend a lot of time watching football at sub-NFL levels. Occasionally, I make my way down to the sideline to get a better feel for the proceedings. You would not believe the force at which 16-year-olds are capable of hurtling themselves at one another.
I find myself flinching at hits that I once loudly applauded. I worry as much about the players who stumble off the field under their own unsteady power as those who need assistance from their teammates. I wonder about these boys and men when the lights are off, and the games are over, the fog is clouding their heads, and the rest of us are thinking about the next Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
I always knew why writers and sports lovers like Ta-Nehisi and Patrick Truby couldn’t reconcile those realities with their enjoyment of a game. I wasn’t prepared to go that far. I’m still not there.
But I can’t stop thinking about what the future holds for Robert Griffin III and Robert Woods. The end feels near.
Listen to our podcast from last May, in which Ta-Nehisi Coates joined us to discuss giving up football for similar reasons:
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