Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Tragedy of Junior Seau, Jonathan Vilma and the Cynical Tyranny of Sheriff Goodell

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.


Raven Mack said...

The sketchy part of this is that the NFL has known for a long while the damaging effects, but pretended otherwise. The players were always simply doing what they had been trained to think was good football. Now they are the ones being punished and chastised, by the very organization that misled them - in the way they were encouraged to play and in the long-term damage to their own health. I am not being overdramatic when I say ultimately this is going to kill the NFL that we love. It will be the NBA within a decade, mark my words.

Neil said...

Yeah, the sickest part of all this is the scapegoating of the very dudes who this is hurting.

Angus Osborne said...

One little point. I'm no doctor, but I doubt any helmet can stop a football player's brain from slamming into his skull when he's viciously hit by a 250 ib man. Perhaps the helmet could be injected into the cranium, but that might not be practical. A more practical and immediate solution would be to take away the helmet (and padding) so that the player's lose the illusion of protection. But what sort of game would be left?

Neil said...

And therein lies the problem: there are no real answers - at least not right now, and maybe never. But doesn't the helmet tech idea at least merit an effort? If they were to find something, I have a feeling it would involve an idea no one's ever had before. I know it seems like every idea that can be had has already been had but that's the story of human history, isn't it? One day - one year, one century, one eon - something seems absurd and impossible, and the next it's a reality. You at least have to try. That's the whole point. Just saying "Nope, can't be done," isn't gong to help anyway so why not? Yeah, it'll cost money but money is one thing the NFL has, and even if the road leads to nothing but a dead end - and I'll admit, it probably will, especially given that I agree with your comment about brain meeting skull - isn't it worth at least the effort? Shouldn't the question at least be asked? Not to sound like some fake Buddhist jacking off to riddles but the answer only comes if you're willing to ask the question.

Raven Mack said...

believe it or not I am an actual scientist so I can tell you current helmets are based off of protecting the skull from projectiles (i.e. World War I helmets) not for cushioning the skull from blows. a lot of this has only been discovered in the last 15 years, but the NFL has known as soon as science did, but also knows it could be crushed by class action suit from players. and honestly, there are companies working on helmets but not nearly as much as there are companies working on sensors to be put in helmets to measure impacts, because that translates to military usefulness too. whoever cracks that nut will get paid because every football helmet in america will probably be required to have pressure sensors in them.
the end result is football will be changed immensely, and really since we are a society that likes to pretend we care about everything even though we don't care about much of anything, it won't be allowed to just tell impoverished young men, "hey, you can destroy yourselves for football and the money involved, it will provide for your families, you will be destroyed, but we're going to create these wonderful 'retirement' facilities for you to live in after your playing days are done and your brain is mangled." because I think that would be a viable option still for lots of folks.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully the technology will catch up, it's a violent game and was meant to be from the's not volleyball for crying out loud. It really hurts to see these things happen, I know Alex Karras and you would not ask to meet a kinder more down to earth guy in your life even after being screwed out of the HOF because he would not kiss ass like Paul Hornung did. But now all those hits have caught up with him Closer to flag football everyday

Jeremy Reisman said...

Why invest in new helmet technology when you can slightly change the color scheme, and slap on a different company's logo, causing the masses to scream, "YEEEEHAAWWWW" in unison?

Anonymous said...

Real fucking funny Jeremy

Neil said...

Jeremy's right. They won't do anything because they will never really have a financial incentive to do it. People will always buy the NFL's shit because, well, it's pro football and the NFL knows it. It allows them to be the sleaziest bunch of dicks in dick county. Instead of doing the right thing - the conscientious thing - they'll just shrug and then distract you with new uniforms and 18 day long drafts.

Ee said...

I have to agree in they likely don't care past their liability. They go into knowing risks for the players. Then again the players all go into it knowing there's risks as well.

I'm more concerned about people who sign up to "guard" their nation only to get sent oversees to fight for a lie. The guys who knowingly sign up for a rough contact sport go into it with eyes wide open, if they don't that's on them.

As long as they have a gutless "union", and union base, I wouldn't expect to see the owners compelled into any meaningful action. I'll be equally surprised if any of these lawsuits result in much more than higher ticket prices and a bunch of giddy lawyers walking away even wealthier.

Glad you're back writing Neil! You and Raven area great at having your boot on the throat of reason.

Neil said...

Armchair Linebacker - "Boots on the throat of reason."

I fucking love that.

Tim in Tucson said...


That's some really good writing and some well thought out stuff. I'm glad I read it. I agree 90% (100% would be hyperbole) that the Saints players may have been put in an untenable situation regarding bounty cooperation. Like so many things in life, there are so many factors that affect each issue. Maybe improved helmet design can factor in. Maybe rules changes or fines for coaches/front offices. Maybe improved drug testing so that the size and speed of players plateaus. I realize that some of this brain damage occurred before the 1990's steroid binge, but shrinking the players couldn't hurt right? Dom Riola recently said in an article that he wouldn't sue the NFL for his future brain damage, but how can he know how bad it can get. Is he really saying that he will be happy to shoot himself in 15 years just so his family can live happily ever after? Maybe he is. I don't know. Keep thinking, and writing. Thank you.


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