Sunday, August 6, 2017

The cost of glory

This is the weekend to celebrate what football gives, if you are lucky and gifted and determined enough. Six men went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton last night, from an owner (Jerry Jones) to a placekicker (Morten Anderson) to two running backs (Terrell Davis and LaDainian Tomlinson) -- one of whom, Tomlinson, so movingly implored America to rediscover its best self you were ready to print up LT for President bumper stickers.

But this is not about that. This is about what football taketh away.

This is about what another Hall of Famer, Jim Plunkett, said about his life the other day, which is not what anyone would wish for a man of 69. He has artificial knees and an artificial shoulder and, last year, he suffered from Bell's Palsy. He takes a minimum of 13 pills a day, suffers from crippling headaches and is in pretty much constant pain.

Yes, football gave him glory. But it left him broken beyond repair.

He is not alone, of course. I can never watch the Hall of Fame induction, for instance, without remembering what I saw the weekend I covered Rod Woodson's induction eight years ago.

One afternoon I sat in the lobby of a downtown hotel in Canton, and watched the heroes of  my childhood parade past me. There was Mel Renfro, walking with a cane. There was Joe "The Jet" Perry, no longer remotely jet-like. And there was Willie Davis, the great defensive end of the Green Bay Packers, hobbling gingerly through the lobby like a man walking barefoot over shards of glass.

Football gave them glory. And left them broken.

Plunkett, for one, has had 18 surgeries and, by his estimation, at least 10 concussions. What those concussions might lead to we have already seen too many times; even Davis, the newly minted Hall of Famer, admitted he worries about CTE these days, worries about what it has stolen from so many and what it might yet steal from him.

And, yes, this is undoubtedly where some reading this will say, "Well, what they knew were getting into." Or, "Well, it was their choice to play football." But neither is really true.

First of all, brain damage and early-onset dementia is not what anyone thought they were getting into, because the NFL went out of its way to tell Football America that brain damage and early-onset dementia weren't risks associated with playing football.  And second of all, talent very often effectively removes choice from the equation.

You choose to play the game when you're a kid, when you're 8 or 9 years old and it's just something fun to do. But if you show some aptitude for it, choosing not to play becomes less and less realistic. First you become a star in middle school. Then you become a bigger star in high school. And by the time the letters from the colleges start coming in the mail, choice is pretty much out of the equation.

The colleges, after all, are offering a free education in return for your willingness to use up your body. In many cases, they're offering it to parents who couldn't hope to afford that education otherwise, and who, like all parents, hold close the American dream of offering their children a better life. And so you either play college football, or you ... what?

Quit and go work three jobs to pay for school?

To be sure, a lot of people do it that way, but only because they have to. No one with the options available to a star football player is willingly going to spurn those options. And so where is the choice here?

And where is it when you get drafted in the first round and land that first outlandish contract?

"Ah, see," some of you will see about that. "They got paid a lot of money to play football. So they shouldn't be complaining now."

But sit in that hotel lobby, and watch the broken icons hobble past. Read about the brain damage, the dementia, the wrecked afterlives of those who give us our bread and circus every Sunday afternoon in the fall. And tell me any amount of money is worth all that.

Maybe you can still do it. I can't.

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