Pro football players don’t make very good victims. For starters, they don’t look like victims. Indeed, most of them look like the opposite of victims, like oversized bullies bent on physical and territorial domination.
But that’s kind of how NFL players have been painted in this growing concussion mess: as the unwitting tools of negligent owners. The league hasn’t been looking out for them, the storyline goes. It’s been too preoccupied with profits to deal responsibly with health issues.
And the players, by and large, seem content with this depiction. After all, it keeps the spotlight on the bosses and off the equally culpable workers. But let’s face it, everybody’s to blame for what’s going on in the NFL right now — including the NFLPA, whose interest in the well-being of players should be at least as great as the owners’.
If the league should have done more to study concussions and make the game safer, then the players association should have done more, too. But I’ve never gotten the sense, over the decades, that the union was heavily invested in that sort of thing. Does anyone remember the late Gene Upshaw, the organization’s longtime president, ever saying, “We’re going fund research at such and such an institute and develop the safest helmet ever made”? Or: “If the teams won’t teach proper tackling techniques, then we’ll hold our own clinics and teach the players ourselves”? Or: “Our members need to realize that they have more control than anybody over how violent this game is”?
That could have been Upshaw’s we’re-going-to-put-a-man-on-the-moon moment. But, the NFLPA, like the NFL, has always been concerned mostly with the bottom line, with increasing the players’ share of the pie. And if the physicality of pro football helps make it the most successful sport in human history, well, far be it from the union to kill the golden goose.
That’s one of the things that’s been lost in this discussion — lost, perhaps, in the heartbreaking tales of former players such as Junior Seau, who recently put a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger. Safety in the NFL always has been a two-way street. The owners, you may have noticed, have passed an unusual number of rules in recent years to protect quarterbacks and other vulnerable players, and every one has met with a chorus of complaints. A linebacker will yelp, “You’re taking away my aggressiveness.” A defensive end will grouse, “Pretty soon, we won’t even be able to hit the QB.”
(And they’ll utter these inanities, I’ll just point out, even after the players association has released a study showing that injuries are on the rise.)
The players are fond of telling themselves, “We are the game.” Well, it’s time they started acting like it — and that means playing by the rules, ever-changing though they may be, and taking a greater responsibility for their own health. Last I checked, the union still was fighting HGH testing, even though Olympic athletes have submitted to it for years. It’s hard to believe putting that stuff in your body improves anyone’s long-term quality of life.
But while this is going on, we have retired players, Washington Redskins great Art Monk among them, lining up to file class-action suits against the league (and helmet manufacturer Riddell). Their cry: We’re victims.
To which I reply: Of what? Their own self-delusion? They didn’t realize, as they came up through the football ranks, that they had chosen a dangerous pursuit? They weren’t aware that the brain is a sensitive organ, and that injuries to it can have catastrophic consequences? It never dawned on them that they were paid these large sums of money, far more than the average working stiff earns, basically because they were selling their bodies? Wasn’t any of that covered in the NFLPA’s rookie symposium?
The league, the union, the players — all of them are guilty, all could have done a better job of responding to the crisis. But rather than argue about who’s most responsible, they need to join forces and come up with a solution … even if it’s 20 years late. That is, if the NFL wants to enjoy a second century that’s as lucrative as the first.