I’ll let you in on a little secret: Raven and I are working on a football prospectus sort of thing, only it will be cool and interesting – a football retardus, if you will. In this will be included all manner of things – our All-ACLB team, our team breakdowns, and other assorted horseshit (boy, do I know how to sell these things or what?) – and we’re thinking about making it available via e-book when it’s all finished. The reason I bring this up - other than as a cheap shill to put the idea in your no doubt chemically-clouded brains – is because a few months back we started working on the All-ACLB team (before the idea for an e-book was conceived) and I wrote my parts for quarterback, running back and fullback (this was before I took a couple of months off from writing about the foozball due to epic burnout) and in these sections, the key theme is the NFL’s change from a smashmouth concuss everyone league to a pass-happy ballet. Naturally, this is full of over-the-top bravado and the romanticizing of the physical obliteration of the typical NFL player all in the name of some fanciful warrior code.
Today, I feel kinda uneasy about all that. I don’t mind saying that. I mean, after all, yesterday Junior Seau picked up a gun and fired a bullet into his body and then rode his spirit horse off to Valhalla, all at the ripe old age of 43. The obvious and, frankly, unavoidable conclusion is that at some point Seau probably had a conversation like this with the ol’ family doctor:
Doc: “Junior, I’m sorry to tell you this, but there’s a very good chance you will have full-on dementia by the time you reach 50.”
Junior: “Well, fuck this . . .”
Indeed. Fuck this. It has become harder and harder to reconcile my own fandom with the above scenario, because the inescapable truth is that we are all complicit in the destruction of a man’s life. It’s dirty and it’s ugly and there’s no real way to justify it. But at the same time, deep in my idiot heart, I feel all of that nonsense that we romanticize, that . . . hell, you know what? Here are some excerpts from those All-ACLB pieces that I just talked about, just so you know what I’m gibbering about:
“Running backs. They are a dying breed thanks to the ongoing pussification of the NFL and this has never been more apparent than right now. In mulling over who I want to be on this team, I was struck by a simple and stunning realization: there are no great running backs anymore. Not really anyway. This is a league powered by quarterbacks now, a glorified flag football farce in which receivers run wild and free because it is a capital crime to so much as shove them. Sheriff Goodell will roll up on you with his tin badge and his six shooter filled with lies and he’ll make your life a living hell if you try to Jack Tatum your way to victory these days. Hell, now we know why Jack Tatum died. His spirit saw this coming and it fled to Valhalla before the Sheriff came to issue him his state approved vagina and knitting needles. Was that sexist? Probably, but who cares? I’m making a point.Look, I love big passing. There is a certain beauty in a perfectly run pattern and a tight spiral, in the hold your breath drop the bombs grandeur of a Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson symphony. It is explosive, fireworks in July, easy laughter under the sun and everybody loves it. But it comes at the expense of the running back, of football that is played beneath storm clouds. It is a steelworker sweating in the dead of winter, his face blackened and cracked by years of hard work and muscle. It is the last desperate push by an outnumbered Roman legion against the wild, undisciplined barbarian hordes. The flag football world we are in now has a soundtrack filled with flutes and clarinets, with delicate ballerinas flitting about on tiptoes, giggling and chasing butterflies. The lost world of smashmouth football, that world in which the running back is king, has a soundtrack filled with fat guys playing the tuba, with thunder and the last desperate breaths of men pushed beyond their mortal limits. I’m just saying, we’ve lost any sense of balance in Sheriff Goodell’s funhouse of a league. Everything is distorted and there are flutes trilling everywhere and goddammit, I just want one fat guy playing the tuba. Is that too much to ask?”
Okay, so that’s one. Here’s another:
“The fullback is more a symbol at this point than anything else, like John Wayne or red meat. It is despised by modern society and pissed on as a symbol of a dumb, Neanderthalic world where men grunt and scratch their asses in the middle of the street and Don Draper chokes out a whore after downing a carafe of fine scotch before returning home to a steak and a smile from his doting wife. To them, it is Clint Eastwood shooting a Vietnamese gang member after calling him a Zipperhead. It is yesterday and the world of today with its plastic sheen and neon lights, with its smiling Sheriff with the tin badge and tin heart, finds it revolting and damaged, an affront to the New Americanism, that Vegas casino of the soul where people laugh like mongoloid idiots at fireworks in the sky and tweet their every vapid thought to robots who ply them with shitty Viagra, credit card offers and the promise of more money, bigger dicks and videos of cats playing the keyboard and engaging in insipid baby talk about cheeseburgers. There is no room in this world for a man lining up across from another man, a crazed bloody smile on his face and willing himself forward on a mud-soaked field for nothing other than an extra inch or yard of anonymous glory, that unrecognized satisfaction of the soul that asks for nothing, wants less and revels only in its own fleeting and ephemeral existence. It has no room for that man staggering to his feet, teeth busted and head ringing, laughing like some half-crazed Viking warrior because he won something simple and yet profound. He won an inch, a yard, and he won it in a way that is black and white, simple in a way which is anathematic to today’s notion of progress, to today’s belief that everything that can be won can only be won so long as it is not taken from another. But that is not the way of nature, and the fullback is nature’s avatar. The natural way, the natural law, brutal as it is, is that to take another must give, that to win another must lose. The fullback embodies this with a totality which is off-putting to the children of Progress and that is why they hate him and that is why he is disappearing.All of that is obviously overly simple, dangerously simple in that way that all seductive ideas are. The real world is more complicated, weirder and unexplainable. But the football field is a place of simplicity, a place where those seductive ideas, those simple ideas, can be made real, where the world is black and white, where people bleed for something so trivial as a yard simply because it is a victory of the soul. This is the essence of sport and it has been forgotten in the mad rush to frame everything in terms of progress, in terms of who we want to be as a people. Football, and the grunting blood death of a fullback slamming into a linebacker for the want of a simple yard, is meaningless, utterly meaningless. And it’s because of that that it means everything. And that’s why the fullback deserves to be – no . . . needs to be – celebrated.”
The thing is, is I stand by every one of those words. I feel that deep in my gut. I feel that they are very, very right. But the tragedy of all of this is also that they are very, very wrong. As a romanticized ideal, they are honest and beautiful. In the real world, Junior Seau kills himself because his brain was destroyed by . . . by what? By an ideal? The reconciliation of those two truths is nearly impossible and just leaves me sort of sitting here and shrugging because I don’t have the answers and neither does anyone else.
People will tell you that they feel strongly one way or another, that they know the answer. These people are lying, either to you or to themselves, or more likely to both you and themselves. What they “know” is actually just a rationalization of their own personal prejudices. Their conclusions are merely justifications for decisions they’ve already made, justifications for the wild passions of their own hearts.
Reality and truth are messy and ephemeral, passion and reality often irreconcilable, and that’s when you end up with tragedy. And that’s what all this is: a tragedy.
It was meaningful – in that way that diametrically opposed ideas that occur at the same time, and in so doing throw the raw truths of both ideas into stark and brutal focus, are meaningful - that on the same day Junior Seau decided that happiness was a warm gun that Sherriff Goodell took it upon himself to arbitrarily suspend a handful of Saints players for their participation in that bounty bullshit, the most notable of course being Jonathan Vilma’s year-long exile. It threw a lot of things into focus for me. It made me realize some things that I think had been brewing in my head – and in my heart – for a long time.
This isn’t about player safety. Not really anyway. This is about the NFL’s desperate need to protect itself from lawsuits. Roger Goodell, long the NFL’s chief marketer, understands these things. His chief goal – perhaps his only goal – in all of this is to protect the NFL from a PR standpoint. When people laud him for “protecting the integrity of the league” as I heard Stephen A. Smith gibbering on about earlier on ESPN, I cringe, because what Goodell is doing is destroying the integrity of his league. Instead of taking real, productive and proactive steps towards dealing with this problem, he’s cannibalizing his own, whipping the very people most affected by these head injuries: the players. And he’s doing so capriciously, changing rules in the middle of the season, deciding all on his own, like some sort of petty tyrant, who should be suspended or fined and for how long. He is the Roman Emperor standing in the Coliseum, prepared to either give the thumbs up or the thumbs down. That is not “protecting the integrity of the league.” That is a vicious and naked attempt to hijack the integrity of the league for the benefit of some surface-level public relations victories. It’s vitally important that people understand that distinction.
Jonathan Vilma and the gang will be forced to jump on the cross of public opinion just so that the NFL doesn’t have to actually do anything or change anything. Because, the reality is this: the changes the NFL needs to change are changes that happen off the field, not on it, and those are the changes the NFL is notorious for refusing to make.
But back to Vilma for a second: think about it for a moment, what was he supposed to do? Sure, there is a noble and fanciful sentiment out there, propagated by the self-righteous, that he should have somehow rebelled against his own coaches, thrown down his helmet like in some movie and refused to play under their draconian and vicious system. You know what that gets you in real life? Cut. It gets you cut. It gets you a bus ticket out of town and a reputation as a malcontent. For someone whose career window ends right around age 30 or so, that’s a problem. That’s a big fucking problem.
But instead of recognizing that, it’s easier for the Sheriff and his posse to ride up on Vilma, the easy target, the target that can’t really fight back (don’t even gibber about the NFLPA, which is about as neutered as a suburban puppy), pistol whip him and drag him back to town behind their horses while the townsfolk cheer and say “Job well done.” And then the Sheriff nods and rips Vilma’s Wanted poster down off the wall while those cheers swell, and he tears it up as if to say “Caught me another one.” Indeed, Sheriff. Indeed.
Meanwhile, Junior Seau puts a gun to his chest and prepares for his final flight into the great unknown not because someone tried to concuss him, because of any bounty program or anything like that, but because he spent an entire career delivering hits, because he spent an entire career doing all of those things which are integral to football, from taking dozens of blocks every game, from the slow wear that erodes and erodes and erodes until there is nothing left but a fading memory, a hazy, terrifying tomorrow and a gun. That’s how these things happen – not as a result of some spectacular hit, but as the result of the ordinary combined with time. This is the result of football, good clean football, not some outlaw bounty program.
But that’s a hard thing to confront. It’s easier to just put spurs to horse and ride down the evil outlaw Saints. Of course, this is all speculative and Seau’s suicide might not have anything to do with head injuries. But, let’s face it, it probably does and even if it doesn’t, enough players have been affected like this over the years that it’s an issue. Seau and his suicide – as callous as it sounds – is just a doorway to this issue.
So what are the answers? I don’t know and, like I said, neither does anyone else. The first steps are obvious, though, and they’re the steps the NFL refuses to take. First, the league needs to invest heavily in helmet technology. I’m talking some post-space-age Here Comes The Future shit. They need to find a way to minimize the impact of the ordinary football play on these dudes’ brains. Second, they need to channel a big chunk of all that money they are famously swimming in towards taking care of their players after they retire. Because right now, it’s no different than the quote from North Dallas Forty: “We’re not the team, we’re the equipment.”
By its own actions – its own refusal to step up and provide these guys with some kind of a comfortable life after football – the NFL has basically admitted that what they care about is not the health of their players but the PR battles that result when someone like Seau goes to greet the God of Death. The solutions – better yet, the first step towards a solution – are things that cost money, though, and the NFL doesn’t spend money unless it has to. The fact that they haven’t is an indictment of their actual priorities.
It’s tough to separate the idea of football from the often times too brutal and terrible reality of football. I understand that. I do. And the only way, I think, that this issue is going to move forward, that something productive will begin to happen, is if we all acknowledge this irreconcilable chasm. This is a complicated issue and none of us know how to really feel about it. None of us have the answers because right now, there are no answers. There are only questions. The only thing any of us can do is to keep asking those questions, and to acknowledge that we need time to try to answer them.
Unfortunately, for the dudes playing right now, time is something they don’t have. It’s too late for them, and that’s an ugly and harsh truth. But punishing them for it, hanging them high for the townsfolk to hoot at and jeer, is not the answer. It’s merely the distraction and the façade the NFL wants you to fall for so that on that day when Sheriff Goodell takes the stand, he can look the jury in the eye and say with a straight face that he tried, man, he really tried and it’s not his fault that those barbarians can’t behave themselves.
The NFL is doing everything wrong to combat this issue, and they are doing so because they are reacting with the same hyper-reactivity that everyone else is, with the same sort of zeal and fanatical devotion to ANSWERS ANSWERS ANSWERS that everyone approaches everything with these days. There is no time for contemplation, for thoughtful reflection, and that just adds to the tragedy of this whole thing, because as long as people continue to try to smash this issue with the hammer of self-righteous “truth” the longer it will take before anything productive is done to deal with it. People just want to yell back and forth. They want to win the argument more than they want to actually find answers. They want to break this issue down to a simple battle between “teams”, just like they do with everything else.
You don’t have to condone the demonization of the Saints and their players just because you’re afraid that if you say “hey, this is bullshit” that people will accuse you of not caring about the health of these dudes. They are not the same thing. You can be critical of the NFL and its superficial attempts to “clean up the game” AND be an advocate for serious change. There is no hypocrisy in this. I hope you get that after reading all this nonsense. Because right now the NFL isn’t protecting its players, it’s selling them out. It isn’t protecting the integrity of the league, it’s destroying it. Right now, the NFL is one of the biggest obstacles in the way of real, meaningful, productive change. The NFL’s refusal to take care of its retired players or to invest in technology that will help their current players – such as radically new helmet technology – given the amount of money the league rakes in is almost evil. Actually, to hell with that, it’s not almost evil, it is evil. You want to know why I’m so critical of the NFL and Sheriff Goodell? That’s why. Hang ‘em high, Sheriff, and maybe when the law comes for you, they’ll have too many dead bodies to wade through and you’ll be able to ride out of town on your horse. But something tells me that when that day comes, even the damn horse will be ashamed to be associated with you.
This isn’t an issue about suspensions or bounties or vicious hits or anything like that. It’s an issue about people, about people like Junior Seau, about dudes whose lives will be ruined before their fiftieth birthday. Yes, it’s all a part of our compact with the game, the risks, the injuries, and these players willingly make their choices, and you have to respect that. You have to. But you also can’t ignore Junior Seau lying dead in his home with a bullet in his heart. This is complicated and I don’t know the answers. Neither do you. You can love football, and you can love big hits and physical play. And you can feel bad about them and you can continue to search for answers, and more importantly, continue to ask the questions that will lead to those answers. It’s all any of us can do. That’s not enough but there is no other way. And that’s why this is a tragedy.