LOS ANGELES, May 20, 2012 — Finally, the tide has turned in the ongoing saga involving the National Football League and the chronic pain and suffering that may be linked to football.
The death of Junior Seau was a wakeup call for some, but the comments a few days later by Kurt Warner may one day prove to be a crucial turning point.
The former Arena League and St. Louis Rams Super Bowl champion was a role model on and off the field. He was a hero on the field, and now he can and should be called a hero off of it as well.
Mr. Warner was one of the quarterbacks who was targeted by the Saints as part of their infamous bounty operation. Mr. Warner retired at age 38. While he still was playing at a high level, concussions led him to quit the game he loved rather than risk further long-term injury.
Mr. Warner’s game was unquestioned, but it was his words a few days ago that reverberated just as hard as any hit from the fiercest of NFL linebackers. Mr. Warner said that he did not think he wanted his children playing football due to the violence and injuries associated with the game.
Critics immediately branded Mr. Warner a traitor. After all, how dare he turn his back on the game that gave him everything: One year he was stocking shelves in a grocery store. Then a few years later he was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and signing a multi-million dollar contract.
Mr. Warner’s written letter answering his critics was more poetic than even the most perfect touchdown pass. It deserves to be read in its entirety.
His letter was important because the very fate of the game so many, including myself, love is at stake. The NFL is a $9 billion empire, and growing, but this one chink in the armor could reduce that empire to rubble. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has staked his legacy on improving player safety and defending the integrity of the game. If leatherheads like myself walk away or do not pass the game on to our children, the sport is finished.
I am not a “casual fan.” The National Football League is a narcotic for me. Experiencing the Draft in New York City, the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Bowl in Honolulu have all been multiple occurrences worth their weight in platinum. The bone chilling intensity of a goal line stand and the intensity of a blocked punt or coast to coast kickoff return are unmatched sports thrills. There is nothing in this world like the National Football League. It is pure testosterone.
Yet this very level of intensity has had a dark side in the form of a male culture that does not allow for athletes to admit pain. Anything less than superhuman behavior is seen as weakness.
Tough guy Rosey Grier put out a story for children’s television called, “It’s All Right to Cry.” Yet that was after he was done playing. Dick Vermeil cried all the time, but that was not the norm in a game where trophies are named after Vince Lombardi and George Halas.
When Korey Stringer died of heat exhaustion a few years ago during practice, the rules were changed. Yet seeing superstar Randy Moss bawling his eyes out on national television about Stringer’s family also played an important role.
Those were physical issues. Mental issues are much tougher for people to talk about. Those suffering mental illness are often seen as “crazy” and “wack jobs.”
A decade ago on the day before the Super Bowl, starting center Barrett Robbins had a bipolar episode and was scratched from the game. The Raiders lost badly and some teammates blamed Robbins. Yet tough Bill Romanowski was the one who publicly said that Robbins was a member of the family and people have to look out for family members. Romo had some questionable moments in his career, but that was a shining moment for him.
Several years ago Tank Johnson saw his promising career with the Bears and Cowboys go up in flames. It turned out he simply had a mental illness. Recently Brandon Marshall came out and admitted that he was bipolar. Perhaps others will have the courage to come forward.
Dave Duerson shot himself to warn the entire football world about brain injuries connected to football. Junior Seau may have taken his own life for the same reason, although at this point all we have are theories.
This is why what Kurt Warner is doing matters so much. He is not trying to betray football. He is trying to save the game and save lives. Both are noble goals. Mr. Warner is a deeply religious man, and he is practicing the concept of “love thy neighbor.”
With all respect to Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus, football really is the
Greatest Show on Earth. Mr. Warner was part of that as the Greatest Show on Turf. Yet while football brings glory, Mr. Warner understands that true character is not about being worshiped on a field. It is about spreading values such as honor, integrity, and character.
Mr. Warner’s character is why he is not willing to sweep concussion stories under the rug like other athletes who are now compensated quite well by the league as sportscasters toeing the company line.
The genie is out of the bottle and it is not going back in. Football should be controlled violence. Players should hit hard. Yet when guys are killing themselves or dying in their forties and fifties, something is just wrong.
As Father’s Day comes next month, Mr. Warner is showing the world that a true father looks out for his children, not his fellow ex-athletes.
At the risk a terrible analogy, the game of football needs to dive head-first into learning everything possible about brain trauma. Honesty requires that if a player is not ready to play, the stakes of the game take a back seat to the mental health of the player.
A great medical book by the former internist for the Raiders is entitled “You’re oOk, It’s Just A Bruise.” Rob Huizenga still practices medicine, and two decades after his book came out, perhaps the NFL is finally seeing the light.
There has to be a balance between preserving the violence of football and preserving the physical and mental health of its athletes in any reasonable way possible. There will always be injuries in football, sometimes debilitating ones. Yet that should be the exception and not the rule.
So thanks to Kurt Warner for reminding us what truly matters in this world. He deserves praise for speaking out. He is a true champion in every sense of the word.
Now if only others who also love football would listen and heed his advice.
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