Y’all, I’m torn. I love football. Always have. I grew up with at my father’s side rooting hard for the Cowboys and his college teams. Like any good Southern girl worth her salt, I learned the game, too. I know the difference between a chop block and a horse-collar tackle and what it takes to get defensive pass interference called on you. I can tell you what being offside means and what a quarterback rating is. I love the sport. I can’t imagine my fall weekends with out it.
Yet lately, I’ve been having second thoughts about my favorite contact sport. This week, Tony Dorsett, one of my Cowboy heroes, was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition caused by head trauma, and which is linked to ailments such as dementia and depression. He was evaluated at UCLA and underwent brain scans. This follows a 765 million-dollar settlement the NFL just made with players over head injuries.
And then! Then came the story of Richie Incognito, who is everything his last name is not. Not only is he accused of harassing a teammate (the racial slurs! The death threats! The financial extortion! The threat to rape his sister!), but also of molesting a woman volunteer at a Dolphins’ annual golf game. Not to mention there’s a lovely taped appearance of him drunk and disorderly in a bar shouting all kinds of inappropriate language.
It’s all enough to make even the most die-hard fan like myself re-think things. What if this CTE thing is responsible for a lot of suicides, aggressive behavior, and lack of impulse control of these players? You know Incognito has been taking monster hits since he was old enough to shave. I used to enjoy those hits: “smashmouth” football. All the colorful metaphors. “He really got his bell rung on that one!” “Play through the pain,” “Rub some dirt on it,” “Walk it off.”
But what if football could possibly ruin your son’s health? I love football. It’s so much fun, it’s beautiful, it’s thrilling, it’s a great excuse to drunk-tweet in the mid-afternoon, but it has also become the major theater of American masculine crackup. According to PBS Frontline, even high school players are showing symptoms of CTE. Given that the NFL took their sweet time forking out some cash for these poor injured souls and that the league is after all an unchallenged monopoly, can we count on the football establishment to look out for their players?
And I’ll admit to an ambiguity myself. Knowing about CTE has not stopped me from tuning in to college and pro ball. But that’s more than a little hypocrisy considering I wouldn’t want my own sons suiting up to play. It begs the question: how will awareness of CTE affect the American tradition of football? Or will it? Is CTE a factor in the ruthless hazing the NFL is known for? Is the “warrior mentality” wrecking our young men? There seems to be a lot of desperation behind our favorite TV show. This is an industry with a suicide problem.
The last thing we need to do in this situation is say a player is soft for seeking mental health treatment. Seems to me when you break a bone or tear a ligament, no one calls you soft for getting help. The brain is a part of the body. It’s an organ. It’s a physical thing. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it breaks because you beat it against the inside of your skull so hard playing football, and sometimes…because it’s unimaginably intricate, the brain, way more intricate than even a modified read-option…it breaks for reasons that are harder to see.
But what makes a badly suffering person incapable of functioning isn’t the validity of the cause, it’s the extremity of the pain. And sometimes…because brains break…it’s possible to feel excruciating agony for no obvious reason at all. To call Jonathan Martin a “weakling” or “soft” for seeking help is unacceptable.
Clearly if we’re going to continue our love affair with our warrior’s game of football, two things need to happen. First, we’ve got to make the stigma of tending to mental health go away. If you lose your wife in a car crash, you are not “soft” to take time to tend to your agony any more than another player with a torn ACL. You might understand someone missing a game or two. Seeking help is just the practical thing to do.
Secondly, let’s hope the NFL handles this problem in-house. Players deserve lifetime insurance benefits given the overwhelming evidence that players are trading in their health for the company. And peer harassment and abuse (let’s not use the middle-school term “bullying” here and call a spade a spade) should be handled in-house as well.. Sure, there’s generic locker-room jerks. But it’s up to teammates and staff to put an end to behaviors like Incognito’s before they get out of hand. Too bad they didn’t.
I’d hate to see football go. Surely there’s a way to protect our men and boys. But if there aren’t some significant cultural changes to the great institution of football, I’m just not sure I can remain a fan. Sadly, I think at this point I can say: this momma? Doesn’t want her babies to grow up to be Dallas Cowboys.