Jason Taylor, former Miami Dolphin and future Hall of Famer, was within hours of having one of his legs amputated. Holy-moly. One can’t help but read about that and remember the Russell Crowe line from Gladiator, “Are you not entertained?”
Real Sports, on HBO, has been doing great stories around this topic for years – the issues of lifelong, debilitating pain and trauma more than a few NFL players face – but only in the past 12-24 months or so has it become a topic with wide coverage. Following last week’s diagnosis of CTE in Junior Seau’s brain a good friend emailed to ask, “Is it becoming immoral to thoroughly enjoy the entertainment offered up by the NFL every week?” And, boy-oh-boy, I don’t know. Where is a good Jesuit when you need one?
My initial thoughts are that if, as a fan or viewer, a person begins to feel guilty about the joy they experience from this form of entertainment, he (or she) should stop watching. Regardless of whether something is objectively immoral, it seems dangerous to engage in behavior that is creating a guilty conscience; even if that specific behavior is not objectively immoral, ignoring one’s conscience in this area could lead to the belief that is is no big deal to ignore one’s conscience in other areas that may be objectively immoral (or of a more serious nature). Thinking of it in this way seems reminiscent of Paul’s teaching around dietary conflicts in the early church.
But let’s get back to Jason Davis’ story for a minute. Here are a few excerpts from the Dan Le Batartd article:
Dolphins legend Jason Taylor, for example, grew up right before our eyes, from a skinny Akron kid to a future Hall of Famer, his very public path out in front of those lights for 15 years. But take a look at what was happening in the dark. He was just a few blessed hours from having his leg amputated. He played games, plural, with a hidden and taped catheter running from his armpit to his heart. His calf was oozing blood for so many months, from September of one year to February of another, that he had to have the equivalent of a drain installed. This is a story of the private pain endured in pursuit of public glory, just one man’s broken body on a battlefield littered with thousands of them. As death and depression and dementia addle football’s mind, persuading some of the gladiators to kill themselves as a solution to end all the pain, and as the media finally shines a light on football’s concussed skull at the very iceberg-top of the problem, we begin the anatomy of Taylor’s story at the very bottom … with his feet.
He had torn tissues in the bottom of both of them. But he wanted to play. He always wanted to play. So he went to a private room inside the football stadium.
“Like a dungeon,” he says now. “One light bulb swaying back and forth. There was a damp, musty smell. It was like the basement in Pulp Fiction.”
The doctors handed him a towel. For his mouth. To keep him from biting his tongue. And to muffle his screaming.
“It is the worst ever,” he says. “By far. All the nerve endings in your feet.”
That wasn’t the ailment. No, that was the cure. A needle has to go in that foot, and there aren’t a lot of soft, friendly places for a big needle in a foot. That foot pain is there for a reason, of course. It is your body screaming to your brain for help. A warning. The needle mutes the screaming and the warning.
“The first shot is ridiculous,” Taylor says. “Ridiculously horrible. Excruciating.”
But the first shot to the foot wasn’t even the remedy. The first shot was just to numb the area … in preparation for the second shot, which was worse.
“You can’t kill the foot because then it is just a dead nub,” he says. “You’ve got to get the perfect mix [of anesthesia]. I was crying and screaming. I’m sweating just speaking about it now.”
I think I said it earlier, but let me restate it. Holy-moly. There’s more:
He isn’t bragging, and he isn’t complaining. He wants to make sure you know that. He feels lucky and blessed to have done what he did. He is just answering questions matter-of-factly about the insanity of the world where he worked.
Well, okay. I feel unlucky when I stub my toe, so it’s hard to imagine feeling blessed given what was described above. There is one more section that jumped out to me:
Everything is lined up to get the unhealthy player back on the field — the desire of the player, the guy behind you willing to endure more for the paycheck, the urging of the coaches and teammates, the culture that mocks and eradicates the weak and the doctor whose job it is not necessarily to keep the player healthy but healthy enough to be valuable to the team, which isn’t the same thing at all. The doctor gives the player the diagnosis and the consequences on the sidelines with in-game injuries, without the benefit of an MRI, and then the player makes a choice with the information about whether to take a pain-masking shot. And the choice is always to play.“Damn right,” Taylor says.
“Would I do it all again? I would,” Taylor says. “If I had to sleep on the steps standing up for 15 years, I would do it.”
Read the entire article. Given that little bit of context, time for a few more thoughts?
A significant difference exists between the Gladiator sports from long ago and the violence in our game of football today. Primary among those differences (besides being eaten by lions) is that participation in football is entirely voluntary. It is difficult for me to say someone is objectively guilty for watching and enjoying a game the participants consider themselves blessed to have played. That I can’t imagine the mindset required to feel thanks in the face of such brutal physical punishment may indeed speak of how twisted some athletes are, but it seems more prudent at this point to take Jason Taylor at his word that he does feel blessed, and, may even be blessed. I should assume, at least at this point, that my failure to understand may say more about my own lack of imagination. Going back to the beginning, this is why I would encourage people who feel guilty about watching to refrain from watching, but I would also encourage people to give serious consideration before arguing that enjoying this sport is objectively immoral.
Of course, that only addresses the fans. What about the owners and commissioner? It seems if they were, over the last couple decades, withholding from players the extent of the risk of long-term, debilitating pain that can follow an NFL player around for the rest of his life, they would indeed have incurred guilt on themselves. Especially if they were doing so for purposes of protecting the cash-cow the NFL has become while at the same time doing nothing to try to remedy the solution. However, a couple points need to be made here. Many players have been asserting in lawsuits that the NFL was withholding information and doing little to inform players of the risks and help protect players from the injuries. What I have not seen are lots of players who are saying, “I wish I would have never played.” Or, “If I had known then what I know now I would have never played.” The vast majority of stories I have seen are from players just like Jason Taylor who seem to be saying, “I’d still play, I’d do it again.” That, too, seems significant. If the all-time greats were all saying they would have never played football had they known about CTE and other long-term physical problems associated with playing football, I think this story would be infinitely larger than the steroids controversy in baseball ever dreamed of being. The vast majority saying, “I would do it again,” is a unique twist that presents quite a paradox.
Of course, the real test will be how parents of today’s 10-year-old boys respond. Will they suit them up in pads and a helmet or will they send them to the baseball field or the basketball court or the tennis court or the golf course? I may not feel guilty (yet) about watching football. But I know I would now feel as bad as Judas about if tomorrow morning I sent my kids onto the football field. That, to me, seems to be the greater threat facing the NFL over the next 20-30 years. Slowly but surely this issue will work its way down into the college ranks, the high school ranks, and, eventually, into the home of every parent filling out the sign-up sheet that will increasingly become less like a sign-up sheet and more like an air-tight legal waiver.
One final thought around CTE, in particular. There is little dispute that the presence of CTE is the result of repeated, traumatic head injuries – at least, not that I know about. What I’d be curious to know is if all people who have had repeated, traumatic head injuries end up with CTE. What if CTE is the product of repeated, traumatic head injury plus some other factor we don’t know about? Many former players are volunteering to submit their brain for research after they die – which is a good thing, it would be terrible if they submitted their brain for research before they die – and we may learn a little more about this in coming years. Another point is that establishing the link between CTE and this sort of brain trauma would seem to be far easier to do than establishing a causal link between CTE and suicide. CTE may greatly increase the risk of suicide. I don’t doubt that. But what about the actual occurrences? Listening to the agonizing tales of pain and agony by former players should make anyone sympathetic to what some of these players endure. It’s not hard to imagine why some decide they can’t take it anymore. However, CTE is surely not a new phenomenon. Surely all sorts of boxers from the past endured just as much trauma as modern NFL players. If so, do similar rates of suicide exist boxers and football players? Also, given that CTE is usually only diagnosed post-mortem, how can we even know what the rate of suicide is where CTE is present?
I’m saying all of this because I just can’t help but wonder if the suicide issue that seems to be an increasingly prevalent problem – note, it may not be increasingly prevalent, it just may be receiving more coverage by the media – is the result of a combination of factors: debilitating pain, a fallen star unable to grow accustomed to being out of the limelight, a loss of purpose following retirement, family problems occurring as a result of the brain damage, a loss of hope related to the pain, abuse of anti-depressants or pain killers that might leave players in a terrible state of mind, etc. CTE may very well be the result of brain damage, alone. That would not surprise me. I would, however, be greatly surprised if CTE was found to be the only factor leading to these suicides. I might even be surprised if it is the single largest factor. Mainly, it seems that the presence of CTE in the brain shouldn’t cause us to ignore or dismiss other things in the lives of these players that may have also contributed to the decision to call it quits in the game of life.
Finally, there may be hope for these players. Bernie Kosar, whose slurred speech has concerned fans of late, may have found a good doctor who is on to something. Let’s hope so.