Let me begin here: I love Walter Payton.
For NFL fans in the 1980s, Walter Payton was a hero. For football fans in Chicago, Walter Payton is an idol. Not only for for his incredible on-field accomplishments — and they are incredible: 16,726 yards, 110 touchdowns and 3,838 carries in thirteen seasons — but also for the way he carried himself with dignity while living a very public life. His legacy of charity work endures today — so much so that the NFL’s Man of the Year Award, given to honor a player’s charitable work, is called the Walter Payton Award. For years before and after his career, leading to his death from liver cancer in 1999, Walter Payton cultivated in himself the image of an exceptional athlete, and an even better human.
Then, last fall, Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman published a biography of Payton claiming that he became severely addicted to painkillers during his playing days, was severely depressed after he retired, had multiple affairs and fathered a child outside his marriage, which set off a round of public denouncements from Chicago sports fans and former players, who were either angry that Payton wasn’t able to defend himself, or resentful of being reminded that the heroes we hold as icons are also –always — human beings. Unlike many, I wasn’t upset about the biography or the fact that it gives us a more complete look at Payton’s life, and given the ongoing public conversation about head trauma in professional sports, it is time to rethink the significance of revelations about quality of life for former players.
Concussions, long a whisper among players in the NFL, have become a point of major disagreement among players, coaches, and fans in the last five years. In the past decade, research has repeatedly suggested a link between the kind of traumatic head trauma that athletes, and particularly football players, experience regularly in their career, and a host of debilitating or fatal brain conditions, including severe depression, dementia, ALS and even Alzheimer’s. My point here isn’t to persuade anyone that head trauma in sports can cause serious brain damage and injury, even many decades later. The links between the two are already very conclusive, and you can always read for yourself the work published by researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, who study the effects of sports and military traumas on the brain. (Read that again: playing a sport like football can be as damaging to the brain as fighting a war.)
I’m far more interested in the discussion surrounding the issue, which has become all the more pressing due to a series of high-profile stories about brain damage in former players. Last year, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson shot and killed himself after years of memory loss and extreme depression, but first left a note specifically requesting that his brain be studied for the effect of concussions on mental health. Last week, former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau shot and killed himself, and while the motivation for his suicide isn’t known, his family has said they are considering donating his brain to be studied. Kevin Turner, a fullback for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1992-1999 has ALS, and only figures to live for another decade at most. Currently, there are over 1,200 former players suing the NFL because of concussion related issues, and the cases grow weekly. The convergence of these stories and case studies were no doubt what prompted former QB Kurt Warner to remark that he wouldn’t want his children to play football professionally: “They both have the dream, like dad, to play in the NFL […] when you know certain things having played the game, and then obviously when you understand the size, the speed, the violence of the game, and then you couple that with situations like Junior Seau — was that a ramification of all the years playing? And things that go with that. It scares me as a dad.”
Warner was immediately rebuked by some former and current players for trashing a game that made him very famous and very rich, but the controversy around his statements are just a specific example of a larger debate between those that would like to see changes in rules and health practices in sports to protect player health, and those who fight and claw against any such suggestion, claiming, among other things, that players are extraordinarily well-compensated for the risks they take, that violence is inherent to certain sports and any attempt to temper it only dilutes the sport itself. Many fans — and some players — complain that attempts to change football are part of a larger cultural shift to “wussify” sports.
But the detractors are wrong. All of them. Despite never being more popular, the NFL and football as a sport stand at a cultural precipice, and fans, players and coaches need to evolve on the issue.
In many ways, I’m the NFL’s ideal fan. During seasons, I watch games religiously. On Sundays in the fall, I spend an average of 8-10 hours watching football. I watch the Monday night games and the Thursday night games. I watch the inconvenient Saturday night playoff games. I participate in four fantasy football leagues. I spend money on jerseys, tickets and mounds of crap with a Bears logo on it. The second-most visited site in my internet history is a football blog. And as a passionate, committed fan, it offends me whenever someone suggests that any decline in football violence will correlate to a decline in quality or popularity. To be clear, I watch football for a number of reasons: To see a quarterback bomb it out for a long touchdown pass. To see a receiver make an acrobatic catch. To see a running back hurdle a would-be tackler. To see a defender intercept a pass and return it for a touchdown. To see a safety or linebacker match wits on pre-snap strategy with an opposing quarterback. To see a coach devise a clever game plan. To see Devin Hester’s ass.
I don’t tune in to see people get seriously hurt. I don’t watch to see Dunta Robinson spear other players in the head with his helmet. I don’t watch to see players stumble to their feet after having their brain rattled. I don’t want to watch while wondering how many of the players I idolize will wreck their bodies so badly that they will become addicted to painkillers like Walter Payton. I don’t want to worry that the players on TV today will be in a wheelchair in a decade. I don’t want to think that more players will end up with dementia and crippling depression. I don’t want to think that more players will follow in Dave Duerson’s footsteps, and shoot themselves in the chest with a shotgun so that their brain can be preserved for study.
Yes, players are extraordinarily well-compensated, and they freely chose to play the game and take the risks inherent to it. That’s not the point. The point here is how this all reflects on me, as a fan and a person, and tuning in week after week to watch young men sustain injuries that could cripple their bodies or permanently damage their brains isn’t justifiable to me just because it comes in the context of a game I love. Kurt Warner is right to worry about his children playing football in the future, and players have every right to consider the impact of concussions when deciding how quickly to return from an injury.
Yes, football has some violence that can’t be avoided or eradicated. People get tackled, players move fast, and injuries happen. I don’t want to watch flag football. But hitting defenseless players, smashing a players head, and using helmets and padding as weapons can be changed — and should be — without affecting the quality or popularity of the game. These changes are already being implemented, and that process needs to continue no matter how loudly people complain. It’s time for everyone — fans, players and coaches alike — to grow on the issue.