The NFL’s tug-of-war

Players and fans alike struggle to come to terms with the head injuries that can ravage careers.

By Robert Zeglinski
Contributor

Every sport a person plays comes with its own inherent risks. At any given moment in basketball, soccer, baseball, etc. a knee or ankle could buckle after landing the wrong way. To participate in such events, the human body must often be in excellent physical condition, which brings different factors into play when someone isn’t prepared adequately.

Football in the NFL – and in general – however paints a different picture of risk for people to just accept.

There’s a physical toll that’s more often than not a severe accumulation of injury everywhere here. The men that participate in this weekly spectacle are already well above regular size, sometimes to freakish proportions. Football requires a dedication in which you need that physique to work in the trenches or absorb punishment at all positions.

Former Bears offensive lineman Manny Ramirez understood this and more when he surprisingly retired earlier this month while he likely still had a few years of shelf life. Maybe these kinds of split decisions aren’t so shocking anymore.

“When it’s time, it’s time. You can’t really push when your body tells you that you can’t do what’s required at this level,” said Ramirez to ChicagoBears.com.

This was someone being talked about as the potential starting center for Chicago that would prove to be effective depth if that didn’t pan out. Now out of the blue, he’s gone.

The Bears have finally been touched by the prospects of early retirement, something that won’t go away any time soon league-wide in the NFL without change.

Of course, maybe Ramirez retired because there are long-term side effects to building your body in such a fashion.

Sleep apnea, back problems, joint pain and withering are only some noted names of the game. What many involved with the game whether as fans, coaches, or players themselves truly don’t recognize is a greater issue than originally believed; injuries to the head. This likely played a role in the 33-year-old’s decision.

Concussions are really on their own spectrum of danger and risk in football because we don’t fully understand how to mandate the game in a safer fashion to mitigate them.

Traumatic brain injuries are harder to diagnose and for players to recognize whether willingly or not as they spell long-term problems other effects from football can’t measure up to. Mental function is a priority and it shows. In turn, education becomes avoidance and ignoring a greater growing issue that affects the foundation of people willing to continue to sacrifice their body for a game that doesn’t love them back.

In the past 12-16 months, there’s a rising sentiment of professional men that feel that way and it’s easy to gauge what this means for the future.

It’s being called the “retirement crisis” by some, except maybe it should be called the solution, because it’s the only worthwhile option for the modern era’s form of gladiators at this point. Seriously just look at this list of guys taking matters into their own hands before Ramirez ever had the idea: D’Brickashaw Ferguson (32 years old), Calvin Johnson (30), Patrick Willis (30), Marshawn Lynch (30), Anthony Davis (30), Jerod Mayo (30), Jason Worilds (28), Jake Locker (28), BJ Raji (29), and of course, the trendsetter, former 49ers linebacker, Chris Borland, who retired at just 25-years-old.

It was his retirement that sparked more awareness of this danger as Borland made media tours with ESPN, Sports Illustrated, etc. to highlight what his body, and more importantly head, went through. This was a man who had suffered a multitude of concussions throughout his career and self-consciously couldn’t continue the charade anymore no matter his stature in the game.

There was too much fear and unknown for Borland to continue to put his life on the line, defining this rising group.

Not all of these men giving up their careers were necessarily elite talents but a lot of these players were firmly entrenched in their organizations as starters, leaders, and building blocks. They say the average NFL career lasts around three years or so. That’s typically meant for guys that just don’t quite cut it whether due to injury or quality of talent. Those who stick around longer as starters and in some cases Pro Bowl or All Pro stars, often stretch into their mid-30s.

To hang up the pads and cleats before that expiration date speaks volumes.

Like Borland, they’ve “served” their time or so to speak but refuse to give anymore. Personal horror stories have already endured for them so they leave the game on their own terms before matters are out of control.

The precedent of guys retiring early because their hand was forced by concussions like Steve Young or Troy Aikman is too severe and scary a prospect. Being told to literally walk away from the game because of the attrition and trauma your brain has suffered is something the “retirement crisis” wants to avoid.

One wonders how the concussion crisis escalated in this fashion so drastically and quickly and you can’t help but point to the NFL.

When a league openly tries to avoid educating players on not only the severity of head trauma, but the amount of head trauma present in its game, people who become enlightened to this fact will take it personally. It’s not just the higher-level executives being discussed here either. It’s coaches and players in a very flawed culture that fosters a pervasive and destructive mentality across all levels.

“Rub some dirt on it” is nice in respects to mental toughness to play hurt and push past your comfort zone but too often it’s taken rather literally.

If a player at any level suffers a concussion, there’s immediately an aspect of shame as to the fact that he’s letting his team down by getting injured and putting himself in a lengthy concussion protocol. Role models and authority figures like coaches place such an intense amount of scrutiny and pressure on their players that no one could possibly not crumble under if faced with the concussion prospects at any level of play. Be there for your temporary team instead of making sure you can function like a normal human being for the next half century of your life. In a slight victory, at least guys at all levels can have concussions diagnosed immediately now instead of “playing through” like the “good” old days.

Still, the flawed prerogative is winning and results instead of care for people ultimately just playing a game.

Personally, in 10 years of playing football through the college level, it was rare to detect outrage over this lack of compassion. Now because of that, we’ve reached the tip of the spear.

Choose your own destiny instead of having your body and life taken out of your hands because of lack of foresight becomes the message.

That’s a problem the NFL seemingly doesn’t want to address as evidenced by their agendas in multiple reports from outlets like Deadspin, The New York Times, and even recently the movie Concussion, which perhaps not coincidentally had limited release for a limited time. They all tell stories of the league continually sweeping concussions under the rug with their own self-appointed biased concussion committees and questionable research.

The NFL was recently compared to be as shadowy as big tobacco once was by The New York Times and that’s not a stretch. The lengths the tobacco industry went to defend their divisive, dangerous product are the same efforts the NFL have been participating in for decades now. There should be no doubt that in the end, the NFL only cares about protecting its bottom line not the lives of players.

Realistically, what professional sports league isn’t primarily just thinking about business interests? Well other sports like baseball and basketball in the MLB and NBA don’t have to deal with concussions and injury issues like the NFL does. Cynically, those leagues have other directives to sweep under the rug, which one can infer.

Beyond executive big wigs, coaches, and players, maybe we’re all to blame here.

As fans, we’ll complain and express concern over what football and the NFL are becoming but for some reason we’re still planting ourselves in front of our TVs for nine hours every Saturday and Sunday in the fall.

For all of its faults, football is a compelling product that for some reason we can’t rip away from. It’s difficult to say if this is hypocrisy or just struggle over coming out of the game’s iron but entertaining grip. For all of the retirements and dangerous conflicting reports, the NFL knows we can’t get enough of football and that practically makes the league untouchable.

Who knows how things will look for the league five years let alone a decade from now. There are ways to become more aware and push for a change in culture so this retirement crisis doesn’t depressingly grow into a full on massive revolution for self-preservation. It shouldn’t have to come to that point.

If we all don’t become more cognizant of the problems in the NFL and football, it’s hard not to ponder whether the game we religiously consume exists in the capacity we know it as today, let alone at all.

Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for SB Nation and managing editor at No Coast Bias. Follow Robert on Twitter: @RobertZeglinski.

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