We are well into the year 2012 and I am sure we have all heard the pontifications of doomsday analysts. The prophesizing of a cataclysmic and or life altering event based on the astronomically savvy Mayan calendar. Whispers of alien invaders, solar storms, and an enigmatic star swooping in from the heavens raining destruction down on the inhabitants of this small iron planet. But there is one prophesy in particular that lends credence to the revolutionary shift that may be occurring in Americas most beloved sport. Some believe that on Dec. 21st of this year the earth will undergo a polar shift. Meaning the north and south poles will suddenly switch, turning the world upside down and leaving us in the proverbial lurch. Now let me first say, that this is as possible as Ted Nugent serenading Michelle Obama in a soul food restaurant, but it does beg the question. Are we seeing a shift on a smaller scale? A shift in the attitudes pertaining to the violence in sports? More specifically, the sport that is leaving its alumni paralyzed both mentally and physically. Is it now time to ask, how much longer can the sport of football last?
In case you have been living on Pandora, the National Football League lost one of its finest this past week. At 9:30 am on Wednesday morning Junior Seau was found dead in one of his bedrooms by his girlfriend who was returning home from the gym. Seau, once one of the premiere linebackers of his day allegedly committed suicide. A bullet to the chest that reverberated through the heart of the world of sports. But the bullet may have opened an even deeper wound. Exposed the frailty of the human mind and the depths at which it can take you if you do not take care.
Lets face it, the NFL is violent. Freakishly violent. Snot bubble, bone curdling, and brain jarring violent. An average play in the NFL is comparable to driving a Mini Cooper into a brick wall at 40mph. For three hours straight. You do not have to be a neurosurgeon to recognize this may have some ill effects on the brain.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is the name that has been given to this debilitating disease that is destroying the lives of ex-NFL players. It’s a degenerative disease that is diagnosed post-mortem in individuals with a history of head on collisions with animate and inanimate objects. The most notable sports where this has been rearing its ugly head are ice hockey, boxing, professional wrestling and of course American football. And while these other sports have seen their fair spattering of the disease in their respective arenas, football seems to be the most troublesome. The symptoms range from anxiety, confusion, memory loss, to most notably depression. And contrary to popular belief, concussions are not a major factor in the progression of the disease. Any blunt force trauma causing the gelatin type mass in our heads to come in contact with our skulls can begin the process. While concussions can speed up the process it is not the defining symptom. One can go a lifetime within the sporting world without experiencing a concussion and still be susceptible to CTE. Which is what makes this all so frightening.
Children as young as six years of age strap on their shoulder pads and helmets to engage in the gladiator type spectacle that is American football. If they are one of the special few to march through the college ranks and on to the pros. This can mean more than twenty years of head on collisions. Twenty years of constant repetitive trauma to the brain. But the epidemic of suicides by ex- NFL athletes is not all about the colossal collisions.
When you are involved in an activity for more than two thirds of your life it comes to define you. Especially one as physically and mentally taxing as football. You have spent hours upon hours studying, training, and preparing. All to reach the ultimate goal of football stardom.
You have now reached the pinnacle of your perceived reality. Approached god-like status. You received the pharaoh treatment wherever you showed your face. The love from your adoring onlookers pierced through your being like neutrinos from the sun. And in an instant it is all wiped away. Your career is over and you are now faced with the daunting task of normality.
The adrenaline rush of any given Sunday is gone. Your body has been beaten, battered, and downright destroyed. The medical bills begin to pile up and getting in contact with someone at the NFL office has become near impossible. Money is not flowing like it once did and the lifestyle you were accustomed to has come to a screeching and abrupt halt. In the past two years you have watched four of your former NFL brethren take their own lives. Ray Easterling, Michael Current, David Duerson, Kendrick McKinley all died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the chest. All of them supposedly leaving their brains intact for a post-mortem study of CTE. You now see no other way out. Putting on a jovial and gregarious face for the public, but inside you sink deeper into that dark abyss. One day the headaches, the depression, and the pain of the past become far too much to bare. A confluence of events that lead to a disturbing and acrimonious end.
Now this may not be the story of Junior Seau but it is fast becoming an all too familiar scene in the National Football League. One that is leading mothers and fathers to question whether to let their children get started in the sport at all.
We have come to a significant crossroads as fans of the wildly popular game. Do we continue to cheer on the gladiators as the Roman mob did in the arena? As the blood accumulates and stains our cheering hands. At what point does the well-being of our fellow man trump our primal need to be entertained?
Yes, the end of football would be seen as a cataclysmic event in the eyes of millions. But it may also be an event that saves lives. But I know and understand the human condition. The NFL is set to make more than $100 billion over the next ten years with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Money and entertainment are the rule. And we will try to plug the dam with a stick of gum. And we will cheer as it breaks. And watch as it all goes south.