- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Stop the presses: Football is hazardous to your health.

This “revelation” seems to have caught many retired NFL players, and their spokespeople in the media, unawares. It was certainly a hot topic at the Super Bowl, where new commissioner Roger Goodell was blitzed with questions about why the league wasn’t doing more for Aging Gladiators in Need — whether the need be medical help, financial assistance or just a shoulder to lean on.

And truth be known, the NFL, stinking rich as it is, could be a little more generous to its pioneers, many of whom didn’t have a union to look after their interests. But that’s all the sympathy the old-timers are going to get this morning because, as Sam Huff put it in Time magazine back in the ‘50s, “This is a man’s game” — and Real Men are accountable for their actions.

That’s what has been missing from this discussion — any mention of the players’ own responsibility. After all, when you sign an NFL contract, what you’re basically saying is, “The party of the first part agrees to sell his body to the party of the second part for [insert amount here].” That’s the basic transaction — money for blood, money for broken bones, money for collisions that make people gasp. The rest of Huff’s quote in Time says it all:

“We try to hurt everybody. We hit each other as hard as we can.”

Of course, when you try to hurt everybody, when you try to hit each other as hard as you can, there are going to be repercussions — maybe today, maybe tomorrow. Brains are going to be scrambled. Hips and knees are going to need replacing. This is what football is, NASCAR in cleats (only without the HANS devices).

And anyone who steps on the field accepts this, understands that the reason his paycheck is so sizable, so much larger than the average working stiff’s, is that, well, he ain’t playin’ two-hand touch out there. On the contrary, he’s abusing his anatomy in ways it should never be abused, all in the name of sport … and commerce.

Some take the battering better than others. Joe “The Jet” Perry, once the league’s all-time leading rusher, was still spry enough in his mid-60s to maintain a bowling average of around 200 (or so he claimed). There would be a lot more Joe Perrys, though, if the players didn’t let their egos get in the way.

This concussion thing, for instance. There’s no reason for it to be as big an issue as it is, no reason for Ted Johnson, the ex-Patriot, to be experiencing disorientation at 34 or for Andre Waters, the ex-Eagle, to be committing suicide at 44. As early as 1989, the Bills’ Mark Kelso was wearing a potential solution to the problem — a foam covering that slipped over his helmet and greatly softened any blow. (So much so that he stopped getting concussions — and the migraines and blurred vision that went with them.)

Alas, only one other player, if memory serves, followed suit (49ers offensive tackle Steve Wallace). The rest either (a.) decided it was unmanly; (b.) thought it made them look too much like a bobblehead doll; or (c.) were oblivious to the device (probably because they’d already had their bell rung too many times). And so, in the years that followed, Joe Montana, Steve Young and Troy Aikman, to name just three, were driven from the game by concussions.

Crazy. And largely preventable. But that’s how players are. Heck, in the ‘40s, the NFL had to pass a rule before the Bears’ Dick Plasman agreed to put a helmet on. And in recent decades, receivers and defensive backs have done away with hip pads, thigh pads, knee pads — anything that might slow them down. (Thereby risking hip pointers, thigh bruises and a bunch of other injuries that would slow them down even more.)

So can we put away the violins, please? NFL players have always been their own worst enemies. For some, such as the Redskins’ Sean Taylor, the desire to “hurt everybody” is so great that they can’t keep from pulverizing the punter in the Pro Bowl. When a player, meanwhile, has the audacity to leave the game without a limp — as the Giants’ Tiki Barber did this past season — he isn’t applauded for his good sense, he’s accused of “quitting” by one of his own (nitwitted former Cowboy Michael Irvin, who was mercifully “waived” last week by ESPN).

Every year at training camp, George Halas gave his Bears the same career advice. “Football,” he told them, “is a means to an end” — a way to set yourself up for the rest of your life. Somewhere along the line, NFL players seem to have forgotten that. For too many of them, the game became an end in itself.

Must have been that hit on the head.

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