A former NFL player sits quietly in a cool, dark room, staring at the loaded gun in his hand. He’s only 40. Maybe things will get better. He bought the gun a few months ago and now it seems like everyday he pulls it out and looks at it, pictures what it will feel like. Will he even hear the shot? The pain is starting to take over his mind. Not the physical pain. The physical pain is nothing. He’s been dealing with that his whole life. It's something else now. The demons. They won’t shut up. He can’t remember anything anymore. He can’t find a reason to get up in the morning. He looks at himself in the mirror and he sees a ghost. The day he left the game, everything changed. Of course, he was the same man. The same exact man he was the week before, but everything, everyone else changed. The world looked at him different immediately. And it made it all feel like a lie. Who am I, then? And what do I do now? He puts the safety back on, opens the drawer and lays down the gun, covers it with his tee shirts and closes the drawer. He walks back into the kitchen, turns on the television, instinctively flips to ESPN. Like a moth to the flame. The dream is dead, old boy. It’s not your show anymore. Remember?
If its through the microscope that we wish to view the NFL's triumphs, its through the same scope that we'll now view its tragedies. The websites and networks and talk shows are in place. We have our season tickets. We’ve paid for the package. The broadcast deals are set. But no matter how hard the NFL and ESPN attempt to steer the narrative of football virtue, the detritus is seeping into the lexicon. The stories of football’s dark side are coming into the light, one after the other, and the football consumer is being forced to consider it.
Last year at this time, the debate was over money. The owners locked out the players when the collective bargaining agreement expired, in what amounted to a dispute over a five percent sliver of the revenue pie. The coverage of the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations and the lockout shined a light on the profitability of the NFL in an otherwise struggling economy. $9 billion a year. Thats what the NFL makes. And supposed millionaires and billionaires were squabbling over percentages. Do you sympathize when they complain about their head hurting? Of course not: look at all that money!
This off-season, it's been the bounty drama, during which the NFL front office has appeared to have the moral high ground in the dispute over health concerns. Using the released audio tapes of Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to strengthen a polarizing narrative, Roger Goodell suspended four players for their apparent participation in a pay-to-injure bounty program. But there was no video evidence of Saints players playing dirty. All football players play the same way: full speed, full effort, all game long. And this style of play, the style endorsed through positive reinforcement from Pop Warner to the pros, results in human injury. Football players are missiles, juiced up by the lubrication of the industry. And you can’t shoot a missile and legislate the impact. Goodell knows this, but his public relations concerns come first, so he jumped at the chance to separate the good guys from the bad guys at the debate desks. This game is safe, if only we get these guys off the field.
But regardless of the NFL's good vs. evil PR strategy, former players are in trouble. There are over 1800 players suing the league over concussion negligence, no doubt only a small fraction of those experiencing symptoms. And they aren’t suing because everything is fine. They’re suing because they are part of an epidemic in the sport. They used their heads as a weapon for a living, encouraged to do so by their bosses, and now their brains are rotting behind their eyes.
I know the objections well: They didn’t have to play football. No one forced them to. They could walk away from the game whenever they wanted to. True enough, I suppose. But how many of you willfully wake up every morning, put on your clothes and drive to a job you dislike? How many of you fight down your better sensibilities daily to adhere to the expectations of others, saying yes to a boss you don’t respect and toiling away on projects you don’t believe in? Football is no different. Except you have people cheering you on when you fall in and cursing you when you do not. “Look what he had, and he walked away from it to be a dentist?”
The reward system for the football barbarian is firmly in place. His physical stature was his gift. Now he must only use it on the field, and the glory shall be his.
But at what price comes the glory? Games that feel important at the time are forgotten immediately. No one remembers. No one really cares.
That's perhaps the hardest part for the former player to reconcile. Despite all the avenues, all the hullaballoo and all the discussion and debate about current players and teams, once it's over, no one cares about me. How can they, after all? Football is supposed to entertain people, not bring them down with stories of depression and suicide. They have their own demons to tend to anyway. Because the former football player is not the only one struggling. We’re all staring at the loaded gun. And perhaps the recognition of this common struggle — the gridiron hero and the garbage man — is the slap we need to kill the mythical dragon. I’ve got him cornered. But I need help.