The destruction of athletes

Monday, January 14, 2013

A person almost has to have mixed feelings over the massive lawsuit being waged by thousands of former pro football players against the NFL, claiming they suffered lasting damage from blows to the head while playing out their careers in the league.

On one hand, not one person playing football doesn't know up front that there is a very good probability that they will be injured by the sport. From the time you are in junior high, families are required to sign off on a liability waiver indicating that they understand the risk of playing.

I would venture to guess that by the time virtually any player lands a roster spot in the NFL, they have suffered injuries and very likely have seen teammates with their playing careers ended by serious, perhaps life-changing, on-field calamity.

For anyone seeking to play sports as a profession, especially a warlike one in which 300-pound athletes crash into each other at top speed over and over, it is hard to believe that they didn't know the risks they were choosing to take in exchange for fame and a great deal of money compared to other jobs a person in their early 20s is likely to land.

A telephone lineman knows going into a job that climbing poles every day means there is a chance of falling off a pole every day. Twenty years after he retires, he or she isn't suing the phone company, the owner of the ground under the poles and Alexander Graham Bell for whatever bumps they took.

Football is high-risk, high-reward. Knowing all we know today about concussions, I still doubt that a single one of those ex-players, if they were 22 today and offered a fat NFL contract, would for a moment consider turning it down.

On the other hand, one can't help but feel for players who have been left crippled, or who can hardly remember their own children's names, after being physically used up in years of constant beatings for the profit of greedy owners and the amusement of sometimes bloodthirsty pro sports fanatics.

I was shocked when Earl Campbell was honored at one of the bowl games the other day. I had grown up watching the Tyler Rose, the punishing, invincible workhorse tailback in the heady "Luv Ya Blue" days of the Houston Oilers. He was one of the most dominating athletic specimens I had ever seen.

When he came to accept the applause of the fans at the college game this season, the 57 year old looked 75. He could barely stand, with a walker, crippled up with old injuries and arthritis. Very sad.

Campbell came into the game at the beginning of the million-dollar salaries - he can perhaps pay for surgeries and care he will need to live out his remaining years. But you have to wonder about the guys who came before, who are hitting old age now. In the early '70s, NFL minimum wage was as little as $9,000 a season (plus free beer, in Baltimore.)

Those guys didn't make much more than an average Joe, and if they blew out a knee in their third year, that was it. Goodbye, enjoy your limp.

Otis Taylor, a legend for the Chiefs, in his time about as fast and powerful as an athlete can be, turned his brain to mush with constant helmet-to-helmet crashes. Today he is bedridden, cannot speak, is unable to walk, and relies on a feeding tube. While the NFL provides some insurance for older former players through the so-called 88-Plan, it is not enough to pay for today's high-cost medical procedures, and does not compensate caregivers. A grim situation to be allowed for a business that makes $4.4 billion from a single TV contract alone.

A few days ago, it was announced that NFL All-Pro and shocking suicide victim Junior Seau's brain had been found to show signs of the neurodegenerative disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

It was heartbreaking to hear Seau's young son say rhetorically, "Is it worth it? I'm not sure. It is not worth it to me to not have a dad."

It was hard to watch the Redskins' Robert Griffin III, one of the finest hybrid athletes to ever come into the game, gimp ineffectively around the field, left in a playoff game after suffering an obviously severe knee injury for the second time this season. Now we're told the team lied about a doctor having cleared their promising young QB to play at all.

I hope he's not the next grim cautionary tale.

It's not just pros, either. People are training their children for sports at age 8 now, hoping to score the big payday. The American Sports Medical Institute recently estimated a five- to seven-fold increase in youth injuries in the past decade.

No amount of fame or money can buy back your health, your mind, or your life, once it is gone.

The NFL, typically, responds with a cadre of lawyers trying to get the concussion lawsuit dismissed on the basis of some convoluted hee-haw about the legal specifics of collective bargaining agreements. If that fails them, bank on the league claiming the players can't prove their conditions are not simply the result of aging, or due to their earlier collisions in sports while in school.

The over 3,300 players involved in the litigation, claiming the NFL covered up information about how serious concussions are, may be most concerned about the chance to grab one last big payday from the profession they were once so eager to join.

As with many lawsuits, this could drag out forever and the main winners are likely to be... the lawyers.

And in the end, nothing really will be gained, because the answer isn't in a courtroom.

A violent sport exists because we are a violent society, and we love it. I'm among those who liked playing it, like watching it, and gladly cover it at the high school level. We have to comes to grips with our nature, and in part, blame ourselves.

The league, the players, the medical community need to be working together to find answers that will reduce the risk of injuries to young people in the future. Whether it is innovations in protective gear, adjustments to rules, or better diagnoses and treatment, you just won't find it in a courtroom in a fight over money.