We don’t know why Junior Seau killed himself. If we were to guess, we’d almost all guess that it had something to do with head injuries he sustained in the NFL. Sadly, those wishing to make the argument hardly need Seau’s sad case to blast the NFL on head injures. There are Dave Duerson, Ted Johnson, and many, many others. Yesterday, Ta-Nehisi Coates described his own conflicted feelings on the problem of being a football fan: “I now know that I have to go. I have known it for a while now. But I have yet to walk away. For me, the hardest portion is living apart–destroying something that binds me to friends and family. With people whom I would not pass another words, I can debate the greatest running back of all time. It’s like losing a language.” After hearing Chris Berman spin the news in a potentially pro-NFL way, he proclaimed, “I’m out.”
I’ve made that claim before, and I’ve refused to follow it. I suspect Coates will too. The pull of the NFL is always stronger than the pull against it once the games start, and the justifications follow quite smoothly. I didn’t stop reading fiction because David Foster Wallace killed himself, and you could make an argument that being an artist requires exploring often dangerous spaces in your own mind. There are other non-pertinent examples that will seem perfectly reasonable the second Peyton Manning is playing Aaron Rodgers or JPP is facing Tom Brady (again). If Coates is able to follow through on his claim, I will be proud, and I will be listening. The NFL needs born-again humanists leading the charge against it if it’s ever going to change.
Part of my ambivalence, which may be irresponsible, is my feeling that the NFL will have to change, eventually. The unsustainability of the current system is put on display with every tragedy like Seau’s. There are many people like me, I suspect, who want to enjoy the NFL as-is because the NFL as-is is damn near perfect television. Nevermind that it’s a terrible game to watch in-person, and the pulsing joy of the tailgate is easily and often mitigated by the lower-than-lowest common denominator side effects of a group of drunken fans of violence cooking delicious dead animals. On TV, the NFL is so unstoppably great that a game between its two worst teams is glorious and preferable to going outside, into a world without television. There’s some beauty in that, and there’s so much strategy in the game that even Bill Belichick gets rightly called out for shitty drafts by armchair bozos. There’s so much to get right, and so many chances to get things wrong, that any even moderate level of success in the game is cause for celebration. If you lined up a one-time 1,000-yard rusher with a baseball player with 300 career home runs, I bet you’d have far more questions for the running back. I know I would.
If the NFL is going to survive in its current state, it’s going to need to shuffle players out of the league faster than it currently does. The problem is that being a football player is a life-consuming endeavor, meaning that the players to whom this would apply need to maximize their playing time to earn a lifetime’s worth of wages. That’s the ballgame. Roger Goodell has overseen an incredible run of success, even by the NFL’s standards, especially when it comes to Super Bowls, which have been almost uniformly great since he took over. If he can figure out how to save the league from itself, it will blow away any other successes. The solutions that come to mind will all probably be implemented in some way: Stricter concussion testing and prohibitions, maximum age limits, increased health benefits, better public outreach. All of these things are going to happen. It’s just a matter of when they do.
I want to be on the front lines of this fight, and to make it happen quicker. But for me the NFL is still about me, and not about them. That’s cowardly, but it’s true. I’d be willing to pay more for the NFL to underwrite better treatment of players, and the endgame is that’s probably what’s going to happen. Why shouldn’t it be the billionaire owners of teams? It should be, but it won’t be, at least not exclusively. We know that, because it never is. It will fall on the fans to foot the bill for what we have wrought, and we will pay it. It’s an addiction, and if you don’t believe that just jacking the prices will work, see Bloomberg vs. New York City on the issue of cigarettes. The difference is that there’s no outlet from which to pilfer cheap NFL like there is smokes. You can’t outsource the Patriots. The injury issue aside, the NFL is an extremely progressive game, as Chuck Klosterman correctly argued a few years ago, and is 100 percent Made in America. The NFL flips this on its head by effectively advertising that it is America, and on the concussion issue it could hardly bear a stronger resemblance to the military with respect to injured soldiers. The main difference is that one political party wants to strip the government of basically all revenue to do anything to help anyone, including injured soldiers, while everyone is willing to pay more for the NFL, even if they don’t know it yet. In the end, it will be about money. It always is, always was, and always will be. The language of Tony Dorsett of which Coates speaks was always backed by the dollar, and it will continue to be, and he and I and everyone else will likely pay to keep the language alive. It’s the beauty of sports and life, and the horror of them, that we’ll be able to live with these contradictions, and that we’ve been able to do so for so long.