Often times, when I watch movies taking place in ancient times or the Middle Ages, it seems like the barbaric practices of the day were lauded and enjoyed by the contemporary citizens of society. Whether it was the gladiators in the Colosseum or European public hangings, everyone watching seemed to actually take pleasure in the cruel and inhumane treatment of others. I come away thankful that we have elevated our society to the point where this is no longer the case.
Well, I’m starting to feel like we shouldn’t be feeling so high and mighty. There could very well come a day where those of us with foam fingers and face paint in the crowd for an NFL football game will seem just as despicable as those Roman citizens with their thumbs pointed downwards. And while I see this coming, I’m not sure how to reconcile my feelings because I love the sport so much.
Last week, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement with a collection of thousands of former players who developed brain injuries, personality disorders, dementia and other ailments likely stemming from concussions and constant contact to their head. While that dollar figure seems unimaginable to the average individual, broken down to the number of players it is designed to help, the NFL actually may have gotten off easy.
Some of those who are suffering in post-football life are men I never watched play or just names from a previous generation. Former running back Jamal Lewis, who played for the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and a number of my very own fantasy football rosters, is now a 34-year-old man who says he has trouble remembering where he is while driving around town in his car. Lewis was a bruising back who ran for 2,066 yards in 2003, which was the second best single-season total in NFL history at the time. He retired after the 2009 season, when he suffered head and neck injuries while with the Browns.
That was just four years ago. That makes me a part of that vocal majority that cheered men who are now already suffering from the entertainment they provided.
To be honest, I don’t know how to reconcile that realization. I don’t know how to reconcile the fact that I love watching something that has been so destructive to so many people’s lives. I don’t think I can instantly turn off my love of the sport and, frankly, I really don’t want to. Telling myself not to watch football because it can be dangerous just seems like another one of those warnings your parents give you as a kid that makes you roll your eyes and give a sarcastic “okay.”
But while we used to celebrate the big hits and crushing tackles, now they’re not as euphoric – certainly not for the players, either, who are fined and suspended for shots to the head. The culture is changing and while it may be annoying for the die-hards and old-schoolers to handle, it is likely for the better. Players now must pass specific concussion tests before they are allowed back on the field. Before, players weren’t even diagnosed with concussions and would run back on the field after being told they “just got their bell rung.”
I love football and I can’t wait for the season to officially kick off Thursday night. But I wonder how my level of enjoyment will change as the seasons go by and the hits continue to add up. I may very well be watching human lives ruined in real time and pumping my fist in the process. I could be seeing my favorite players turning into the next Dave Duerson, the next Junior Seau.
I don’t have an answer to the question. I just know that I’ll be watching every week. Does that make me hypocritical? Do I identify with those early societies a little more than I’d like to believe? Possibly.
We’ll be exploring these questions and issues for years and there’s a distinct possibility that football won’t exist as we know it when the next generation reaches adulthood.
But the least we can do is be aware and sympathetic to the men who take the hits and live with the results long after we’ve all left the stadium.
• ‘My Thoughts Exactly’ appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays in The Garden Island. Email David Simon your comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow David on Twitter @SimonTGI