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Toughness is Cool, Brain Injuries Are Not

Football doesn’t change until our attitudes change

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NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville
Still a badass
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes the lede really does tell the whole story. There’s really no way to improve on this opening:

A bizarre and uncomfortable scene unfolded at a Jets’ fan forum Monday in Florham Park when a season ticket holder asked rookie safety Jamal Adams his reaction to the growing concern regarding brain injuries in the NFL.

“I can speak for a lot of the guys that play the game, we live and breathe (football) and this is what we’re so passionate about. Literally if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field,” Adams said.

The 100-plus fans in attendance then began to applaud, with commissioner Roger Goodell sitting right next to Adams at the front of the auditorium inside the Jets facility.

Look, I know players talk in hyperbole and superlatives all the time, and not to take anyone at face value when they talk in war metaphors or whatever, but… geez. That give me a chill just reading it.

We’re not an NFL blog, so I’m not going to spend too much time ripping into the friggin’ commissioner sitting right next to Jamal Adams doing little to mitigate the damage. He would later talk to the local media and spout some platitudes about passion for the game and how much the game means to players.

That would be cool if players weren’t actually dying from head trauma, and undiagnosed CTE was reaching near epidemic proportions among the football veteran player community. 99% of brains of former NFL players showed signs of CTE in a recent study. Ninety-nine. But it’s hardly news that the NFL churns through players with little regard for them as human beings.

I love Jamal Adams. He’s one of my all-time favorite players, and I love the attitude he brought to the game and, yes, his degree of recklessness. But it is shocking for a player to make light of a very real health concern of his chosen profession.

Some of that is a condition of youth. We were all careless once. No one actually thinks they are going to live forever, but no one thinks they are going to die. Nor do they think about chronic pain or God forbid, your mental faculties slowly slipping away from you. When you are twenty years old, forty seems such a long way off.

However, Adams’ casual dismissal of CTE demonstrates how any efforts to reach players about the health risks of head injuries is plainly failing. OK, older players probably get it, but you would rather players take precautions early in their careers, not when they are winding down.

Then again, there’s really not much a player can do to minimize risk other than not play football. Heads Up football is a meaningless PR scam. There is no safe way to tackle, and even less so when you think about the high-speed collisions of the near perfect physical specimens in the NFL. It’s a perfect storm of danger on every play, and the repeated violence takes its toll.

I would like to see a young player take a little bit more interest in his self-preservation, but at the end of the day, it’s his own life. As Bill Hicks told us, he’ll smoke the cigarettes, he’ll get the cancer, he’ll die. And Jamal would have to have been living under rock to be unaware of the inherent dangers of pro football.

No, what disturbed me about the article was the reaction of the fans. One hundred football fans cheered at the prospect of one of their professional gladiators caring so much that he would literally lay down his life to win a game.

I don’t believe Jets fan are uniquely bloodthirsty. There’s a better than even money chance that Adams would have received the same cheer from LSU fans had he made the same boast last year. And that is disquieting.

Jamal Adams has found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but most college football players are not going to be high first round picks with a big-money, multiyear contract waiting for them. For the large majority of players, they are risking their future health for a few seasons worth of cheers and adulation.

Let’s not pretend that isn’t a good reason. To get cheered on by 100,000 screaming fans, whether you are an 18 year old kid or a 50 year old man, sounds exhilarating. Most of us will never experience anything quite like that roar of the crowd.

However, as I get older, I’m more and more aware that these are kids. They are supremely talented kids who are dedicated to their sport to an insane degree, but they are kids nonetheless. And as fans, as the adults in the room, we owe it to them to not willfully throw them into danger.

The only way reform happens is not if the players union demands it, but if fans do. The only thing that really changes things are large, angry mobs. There has to come a point at which the risk of football as it is currently played becomes unacceptable. It happened before, when Teddy Roosevelt demanded that college football reform its rules to make the game safer.

He stepped in after a kid died. We can use the terms, but the gridiron isn’t a battlefield. Injuries are a part of sport, but debilitating brain disease is not. I don’t want Jamal, or anyone, dying on the field. I also don’t want them to be unable to function as a regular human being in twenty years down the line.

There’s a lot we don’t know about football and brain injuries. But we know it is bad. And the least we can do right now is to not cheer for players to debilitate themselves for our own amusement.