Sunday, May 22, 2011

When in Rome...

In modern American culture, the NFL’s popularity dwarfs every other sport so badly it’s not even an intelligent debate. As ESPN’s Mike Greenberg put it, “It’s the most popular thing in American culture.” The Super Bowl is consistently the most watched event of the year, stadiums across the country are sold out almost every week, and even the most ardent haters of professional sports are up to date on the NFL.

But as the league fights with its players over how to divide the absurd $9 billion in annual revenue, a giant, pink elephant has pulled up a chair at the negotiating table.

Differing from other sports like baseball, soccer, and basketball, football is the perfect combination of strategy and brute strength. With this perfect balance, however, comes the dangers of being caught between elite athleticism and “tough guy” culture. The result is a game that kills its players.

As we scream at our HD, 3D, Double D, home theaters for bigger, more crushing hits, players are being ground like Big Mac patties and kicked to the curb in less than four years. What life awaits them? Hopelessness, to the tune of 78 percent who find themselves divorced, bankrupt or unemployed.

As bad as this sounds, it doesn’t come close to the crippled, post football lives hundreds of players are left to endure. In a 2008 article from Men’s Journal, Paul Solotaroff describes the miserable life of former Jacksonville Jaguar and Cincinnati Bengal Brian DeMarco, who lives in excruciating, constant pain from a broken back that was “doctored” with just a few shots of lidocaine.

“Although the house is cool, he is sweating profusely and can’t find a position, seated or prone, that doesn’t cause him grotesque pain. Every so often his huge body jerks in spasms from head-to-toe agony. The fits, when they come, turn him as white as the walls and send un-self-conscious tears down his cheeks. It’s DeMarco at thirty-five: dirt-poor, broken, and in a headfirst spiral, taking his wife and children down with him.”

Chicago Sun-Times writer Rick Telander described the life of Bears Hall of Famer Doug Atkins in his 2008 article, “Atkins: A Study of Pride and Pain”. Tucked away in the country roads surrounding Knoxville, TN is the man legendary Bears’ coach George Halas called the best defensive end of his time.??? Atkins, however, lives as a recluse and can barely move around his dilapidated home.

Telander writes, “The house has its curtains drawn. There are two old cars in the carport, one of them very old... There’s a wooden wheelchair ramp that looks weathered and unused leading to the front door. Two tiny American flags on the wall next to the carport. No lights on. No decorations.”

In February, fellow Bears great Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest with the intent of  donating his brain to science in order to identify the degenerative disease caused by his years of brutal hits on the field that was tearing his mind apart.

Former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters shot himself because of depression caused by “sustained brain damage from playing football.”

Former New England Patriot Ted Johnson suffers from crippling bouts of depression.

Hall of Famer Mike Webster died at age fifty, surviving on enough prescription drugs to make Walgreen’s jealous.

Chicago Bears great Jim McMahon has lost most of his memory due to football injuries.

Sadly, I could go on much longer than you’re willing to read.

In the wake of new, vigilant rules to prevent traumatic brain injuries, Sports Illustrated reported a new study from Purdue University claiming even minor hits can be just as traumatic to the brain as the crushing blows that light up the evening Sportscenter.

NFL players honestly need the money because their health is constantly on the line, regardless of their superstardom (ask Bo Jackson). At any moment, more so than any other major American athletic activity, a football player’s ability to function in life is at risk. They are already giving up later years of their lives in order to give the American public what it wants; conflict, violence, and triumph.

With this in mind, it begs the question; Is watching professional football the modern equivalent to watching gladiators of ancient Rome?

To which the follow up question is; Why do we watch?

Through a series of blogs, I will explore several themes found within the NFL and what they reflect about American culture, particularly among males.

It’s social commentary at it’s college town coffee shop finest.

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