It’s been fun, football, but I can’t do it anymore.
I’ve been sensing this moment coming, with every single death of a former player. My enthusiasm started to wane with the suicide of Junior Seau…or maybe it was Mike Webster’s passing…or Dave Duerson…or…well, it doesn’t matter. For years we’ve known that life expectancy for former NFL players wasn’t great, and that former players often had to live with significant health and body issues for the rest of their lives after retirement. For years I said what everybody else says: “They knew the risks. They signed the contracts. They made the money.”
I can’t say those things anymore. Not after reading what Darryl Talley’s wife had to say.
“Our daughters and I spent a few years frustrated and concerned with Darryl’s anger, erratic behavior, insufferable mood swings, impulsivity, depression and memory loss,” Talley wrote. “He’d been more and more frequently asking how to spell elementary words. He lost keys, wallets, reading glasses, and television remotes regularly. Where he once would have retraced his steps and been able to find a misplaced item, he wasn’t able to do so anymore. He had no ability to concentrate or make decisions.”
Janine Talley says her husband sometimes struggles just to walk to the bathroom in the morning. He’ll occasionally be eating and just drop his fork or glass on the floor because he has no feeling in his fingers. Excruciating pain often makes it difficult for him to sleep or sit in a chair.
Once, Talley came out of the house for a trip to the store, and Janine noticed his hand was missing a chunk of flesh and bleeding profusely. He hadn’t noticed.
“When we got to the store and he pulled out his wallet, with it came his razor,” Janine Talley wrote. “When he finished shaving, instead of putting the razor back in the cabinet, he’d unknowingly put it in his pocket. The mystery of how he’d cut himself was solved. His not knowing he’d put the razor in his pocket and not having enough feeling in his fingers to realize he’d sliced chunks of his flesh off of them repulsed and infuriated me.”
I can’t read stories like this and conclude that it was all worth it. I can’t read accounts like this of a post-football life amounting to decades of pain and emotional turmoil and tortured family life. I can’t see those things, and many more like them, as a worthwhile price to pay for a game.
Sport is the act of demanding things from our bodies that they’re not really built to provide. I get that, and I’m sure every sport leaves its mark. But football is something else. Football is a meatgrinder of an industry that asks children to put their brains at risk in hopes of getting on the high school team, then asks the high schoolers to do the same in hopes of getting to play in college, and then asks the college players to do the same in hopes of getting to the NFL. With each level, the percentages shrink dramatically, and with arrival in the NFL comes…nothing more than that. You play your time, you get used up, and you leave.
I can’t support this any longer. I can’t cheer these young men on the field, knowing that in twenty or thirty years a good many of them will be suffering horrible physical ailments and may be struggling for money. (Talley’s family has had fundraisers to pay for his surgeries. Fundraisers. For a former NFL player who made “millions”, which weren’t enough. And that’s not Talley’s fault.)
I can’t support this sport any longer, with my feeling that it’s a matter of time before a player dies on the field.
I can’t buy the excuses anymore. Don’t tell me they know the risks; don’t tell me they sign the contracts; don’t tell me they get paid a lot of money. Just don’t. Nobody who reaches the age of, say, 40 looks back on their 22-year-old self and sees a paragon of risk-assessment. Likewise, don’t tell me that money makes it all better. In a lot of cases, the money doesn’t last, and in more cases, even if it’s handled intelligently, the money runs out eventually. Those few millions dwindle quickly once the career is over and the medical bills start to mount.
I’m sure that a lot of former players, even the ones who are suffering the most, will say that it was worth it to them. That the high they got from taking the field is more than worth the years and decades of agony that come later. And maybe, for them, it is. That does not justify the industrial ruining of lives for the sake of The Game.
Watching football has brought me less and less cheer over the last few years, and now, it seems to bring no cheer at all. I look at football highlights and all I see are men being paid to hit each other as hard as they can.
So it’s been fun, football, but I’m done. I no longer root for the Bills or hate the Patriots. I find the whole game a depressing thing for everyone concerned. Including the children who will see their fathers dwindle long before their time.
The difference between our bread-and-circuses and those of the Romans is that our gladiators aren’t dying on the fields or in the Colosseums. They’re doing it at home, alone, and sometimes they’re doing it with a pulling of the trigger as their final act.
Is that worth a Lombardi Trophy, in any city?
For me…no. Not anymore.