Football has gotten too big and too strong and too violent, and maybe the collateral damage can’t be controlled or governed, not even by the most punitive commissioner in the history of sports, who this week was reduced to a public piñata. America’s favorite bloodsport continues to sell the nobility and strength of the human spirit while every limping week, as bodies pile up on the sidelines, we learn a little more about how the sport has outgrown the limits of the human body and the human brain.
Football trains and strengthens and emboldens and rewards dangerous and violent men … and has these dangerous and violent men collide into each other for gladiator glory in a way that alters their brain chemistry and might make them yet more dangerous and violent … and then doesn’t know how to react by matter of policy when all that danger and violence occasionally spills over the sidelines and out of the stadium in a way that leaves the bleeding and scars out in public.
The solution — Punish! Punish! Punish! More! More! More! — hasn’t appeared to work at all, but now the angry mob gathers to pressure the impotent commissioner to punish, punish, punish some more, more, more. So this can seem like a reasonable and unreasonable question to ask Sunday since we’re screaming about football anyway:
While America’s most popular game is making profit and commercials and record ratings, is it also making the occasional monster?
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It is important to note for perspective that many more football players behave than misbehave and that football’s domestic-abuse problem pales, numerically and empirically, compared with America’s. Even though news screamers are using flash phrases such as “epidemic” and “league in crisis” at the moment, what has happened the past few weeks to trigger the headlines and howling isn’t much different than what has for years been business as usual in this workplace. We just had videos and pictures this time. The actions were basically the same; only our reactions were different.
That’s where poor, rich Roger Goodell, who makes more than $44million a year, got surprised and undressed. He has been dealing with this for years without us ever getting this kind of sickened and upset about it. That’s kind of amazing, the most punitive commissioner ever in huge trouble for not being quite punitive enough, but not quite as amazing as his inaction making this a bigger story than Ray Rice’s actual action. In terms of punishment, the crime wasn’t as problematic as us witnessing it.
We see more than ever now, to our horror. Cameras everywhere. Coverage everywhere. The elevator doors don’t even need to open to reveal how Rice punched his wife in the head. The photographs show us the open wounds Adrian Peterson leaves when disciplining his 4-year-old boy. We’ve gotten scared and started screaming recently, but the failing and flailing Goodell became famous to much applause at first for being an ironfisted dictator out to eradicate these kinds of problems more furiously than any sports leader ever.
That he has failed at this becomes harder to overlook when Rice and Peterson put us in a place where we feel like we are almost literally having to hide the women and children. But he might be failing at it because it is not possible to succeed.
And yet something somehow still seems unseen here, hard as this is to believe in a game examined this much: Are any of the criminals also victims here? Is football, the game itself, the violence, the culture, the altered brain chemistry, the drinking and drugging to self-medicate, the depression and darkness that come with guaranteed pain, in parts creating the very behavior it is trying without success to police and punish?
Millionaire entertainers make for very bad martyrs, especially the misbehaving ones, and this particular workplace dismisses all explanations as excuses. There is no winning argument on the other side of that Rice elevator video or a photo of a beaten 4-year-old or the visceral and sick reaction America had to seeing them. But is it at all possible that at least some of these crazy criminals being handcuffed in football are, in fact, being made crazy and criminal by all these brain-altering collisions?
Before you dismiss that football itself might be an accomplice here when it comes to some violent and erratic behavior you don’t see with the same regularity in other sports, before you rail with judgment about personal accountability and those millionaire punks, remember that old warriors such as Junior Seau and Andre Waters and Dave Duerson killed themselves to stop all the pain and darkness, their choice seeming rational to them amid their evidently altered brain chemistry, ending life a better idea than living it, suicide as a solution.
If late linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his wife in front of his mother and killed himself in the Chiefs parking lot in front of his coach and general manager this week instead of two years ago, the timing and recent NFL news cycle might make you more open-minded about considering what football itself might be doing to its colliding employees. While in college, mind you, Belcher was part of Male Athletes Against Domestic Violence.
Yes, many people who don’t play football do these kinds of things. Yes, many football players behave just fine amid the collisions. But, mad as you are about today’s behavior, is it possible that some football players are being driven a different kind of mad? Hall of Fame center Mike Webster suffered from amnesia, depression and dementia before dying at 50. He played at 255 pounds. The average center today weighs 50 pounds more than that; 255 is the average weight of a tight end. If the players are bigger and the collisions are bigger and more plays are being run, doesn’t it stand to reason that brain chemistry might be altered faster because of it?
We don’t do nuance so great in sports, taking sides like we do on the scoreboard, making complicated issues and complicated people into either 100percent good or 100percent bad without degrees. So someone such as Rice goes from community hero to being defined by his worst public act in all the time it takes his unconscious wife to hit the floor. But you have to wonder: If Goodell punishes people like no sports leader ever, if he has done more to eradicate these problems than any commissioner ever, but the problems persist and arrest rates don’t actually go down despite unprecedented consequences, is it possible that what is happening here is so ingrained in football’s fabric that it can’t actually be controlled, never mind fixed?
Take Duerson, for example. He was a charitable man. Was once named the NFL’s Man of the Year. But a few months before leaving us for good, before shooting himself in the chest so his brain could be studied, he gave an interview to Rob Trucks of Deadspin in which he said, “My biggest regret? My wife and I had an argument in South Bend and, you know, I lost control for three seconds. That was a one-time event. The most disappointing of my entire life, but one that will never, ever be repeated.” Maybe he killed himself because of money problems and his mother’s death, but he was pretty clear-headed in his suicide note asking that his football-damaged brain be studied. Maybe he decided to harm himself so that his demons wouldn’t nudge him toward harming others.
Small sample sizes and random violence make studying this feel noisy and unscientific. But the violent newsmakers last week (Rice, Peterson, Jonathan Dwyer) were running backs. That’s the only position in the sport where guys retire early because of how much it hurts, and it is the only position in the sport where all 11 defenders go to hit. Causation, correlation or coincidence? Dwyer’s domestic-abuse charge came with details that he was reportedly sending his wife photos of a knife and threatening to kill himself. Is his brain altered or is that just marital melodrama? Maybe Cardinals defensive end John Abraham, the NFL’s active sack leader, has three alcohol-related arrests because he is an irresponsible lout or because he is a self-medicating alcoholic or because he has played for a long time and concussions put him on injured reserve this week as he mulled retirement.
The players and game appear to have reached a literal breaking point. On the field, 55 players left games and didn’t return because of injury in Week1 and another 35 were lost in Week2. Off the field, the NFL tried to make some things go away with a $765million concussion settlement that seemed large until you consider that Anheuser-Busch pays $1.2billion just to be football’s official beer. When you merge the violence of the sport with the profit that it generates, and throw in head trauma, too, it can make things difficult to see clearly.
Like, for example, the curious case of wide receiver Davone Bess. He arrived in Miami as an undersized and humble kid from Hawaii who turned into a community pillar. He had very sure hands. You never heard a bad word about him. You could count on him. But then the hits started piling up for a small, possession receiver who took an unholy beating. Next thing you know, his family is hospitalizing him against his will, six deputies are needed to restrain him in his home as he reportedly screams, “Hide the guns!” and “Where is my weed?” and “I want to get in the end zone; throw me the football!” according to the incident report. The Dolphins managed to somehow keep this quiet. And traded him to Cleveland a month later.
Bess all of a sudden became a lot less sure-handed. Dropped passes. Muffed punts. Maybe he had a drug problem caused by reckless irresponsibility, another bum throwing away the high life. Maybe the drugs eased the pain and the noise in his head. Or maybe his brain wasn’t right. Bess put up a photo of himself naked on Instagram. He put up another evidently smoking marijuana. He was arrested at the airport. Several passengers reported strange behavior. Singing. Dancing. Pants falling down. He allegedly spilled coffee that wasn’t his on a police officer and assumed a fighting stance while taking off his shirt. Back to the mental facility, this time of his own will.
Cleveland had language put in his contract that allowed it to save $3.067million when it waived him this year. Bess lost that money when he was put on the reserve/non-football related illness list.
Non-football related illness?
How can we be sure?