“If he dies, he dies…”

On the Lowering of the Helmet

I took one step, saw a white light, and that was it. I never played another snap of football again.

The hit was innocuous. You had to squint to see it on film. But by that time, there was already enough accumulated carnage to cause my head to collapse my body onto the seat of a Gatorade cooler. I said a few words to a teammate: I think I got another one. He was shocked, but not surprised. After all, he played the game too.

It was violence, of course, that drew me to the game in the first place. I was an angry kid who did not like other angry kids and wanted to hurt them as they wanted to hurt me. I was young when I started playing football (probably too young to do so looking back now) but not too young to know that I constantly felt like screaming. My body screamed too, and it was old enough to know that I could never slam anyone to the ground playing baseball.

Football pleased me. I was slow, big, and awkward, but there was something there for me. Coach Skillens told me that if I didn’t know what to do on the football field, all I had to do was hit somebody on the other team. Coach Brown told me that the football field was the only place I could kill someone and get away with it. All of this advice and wisdom greatly appealed to me, just as it does for most players in America. It’s guidance for the deluded, because you have to be delusional to slam your head into another person at high speed. Of course, you also have to be delusional to find joy and belief in your own capacity to commit violence, because that is exactly the point of football.

The violence of the sport ended my career in it, though, and it was this denouement that hurt me more than any blow I endured. I had tears in my eyes when I walked to the trainer’s room to tell them what I already knew: I couldn’t play anymore. This last concussion was the latest in a string that seemed to never end. It annoyed me that my head could no longer hold up its end of the bargain. I mean, I had ostensibly done all of this hitting for its sake — to garner access to a college education — but my brain was tapping out. It could no longer suffer the tests of balance, the questions from doctors, the concerned looks from anyone involved in my life who didn’t want to just win football games. It felt pressure from the destruction within and the damage without — a pressure to quit. So I told my coach that I had to stop playing and he shook my hand and life went on for me and life went on for the football team.

But life did not go on for retired football player Junior Seau, who killed himself that same day.

***

There’s a philosophy based on Heidegger’s distinction between objects and things that suggests people only see things as functions. For instance, one only sees a car as a vehicle that gets one from Point A to Point B. The car doesn’t become something more than a function or service until, say, the battery dies, and then all of the sudden one must notice that the car needs electricity to work and that the car is actually an amalgamation of effort and knowledge and craft. Then, it becomes something more. It has an essence.

CTE is football’s creeping nightmare. It is the thing that takes the sport’s best attributes — speed and violence — and flips them on their heads. The NFL has done its best to ignore this essential, existential truth: that the sport causes unavoidable brain damage. The NFL has obfuscated and hemmed and hawed and bent over backwards and run away and punted this issue to other people and other times. It wants to deny the legitimacy of brain damage. Death, however, has a finality to it that makes denial impossible. Lives forged in the violence of football are often lost to that violence, and this the NFL can never deny. But how does one reckon with the truth when the truth undermines reality?

Violence is football’s electricity, and the NFL, with the creation of a new rule that regulates the lowering of a helmet by a runner or defender, is trying to dim the sport’s wattage. But the idea that football can be made safe is a fallacy. Football requires danger — that is, quite simply, the sport’s essence. If the rule seems foolish, that’s because it is.

People sign up to play football precisely to lower their heads into other bodies. There’s a glory in overthrowing someone whom you do not know but wish to harm. One can comment or criticize the usefulness of such feelings that make football players want to do such things. They can call them inane, banal, anachronistic, juvenile, dumb — even toxic — but the critique doesn’t eradicate the joy. The joy is there when Marshawn Lynch bowls through someone over and over and over and over and over and over again. It’s there when we watch Marshawn Lynch “run through a muhafucka’s face.” That glory once consumed my entire soul — was its entire purpose — and still lives there in inches at its rougher edges. For countless players, the desire to run someone over is what wakes them up in the morning. It’s also why so many of them, too many, do not wake up in the morning at all.

This rule about lowering a player’s head cannot change that.

***

Often, I wish that I could go back in time and take back my decision to stop playing. I say that knowing that sometimes my hands shake and I get dizzy for no reason and that I have mortgaged enough of my body for the sport. I also say that knowing that Sydney Seau wishes to see her father again. This hurts me, but we are hurt either way. Every person who has touched that glory and violence probably wants to touch it again. So football players will still lower their heads to ram someone to the ground. That is due to both their delusional natures and the delusional nature of the sport. They signed up for this. They know and assume the risks.

The NFL, in lieu of this rule that will damage the player’s safety as well as the game’s integrity, needs to do more than this. It needs to use its massive resources to find a cure for CTE and it needs to guarantee all the money in player contracts. It may be a fool’s errand to chase down an antidote to the game’s most disastrous consequence, but that is a sincerer effort than telling itself that it is what it is not: safe. And, for too long, the cost of doing business has only been paid for by the players and their loved ones, who offer their bodies and heartache for our entertainment, and never by the owners and commissioner. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners cut that cost by being the only major professional sport league that doesn’t guarantee the financial future of its players. This latest rule is just a cheap, dangerous, useless ploy to avoid the truth from which they wish to hide in darkness. Let’s hope they eventually come to the light, but I doubt it. Because right now, if a player dies, he dies, and they just draft another one…

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