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The Betrayal of the Disabled NFL Veterans

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A few days, ago, in an entry entitled "Exploring the Spirit(s) of the Times," I indicated a possible new direction for delving into what's happening in this country. Let us look at the wider cultural situation in America, I suggested, beyond the specifically political. Let us attend specifically to those phenomena we discover where there seems to be some manifestation of what spirit or spirits are at work in our cultural system in our times.

This piece --concerning the NFL, the players, and the Players Association-- is a venture in that direction.

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My Ambivalent Relationship With Football

I have always considered football a truly great game-- considered as a game. I like the way, unlike in soccer, every gain and loss continues to matter even if one doesn't score. Field position is cumulative and enduring. I like the mini-contests of either getting or failing to get first downs, which of course is part of the cumulative nature of field position. I like the balance between offense and defense. Of all the team sports I know, football works best in strictly "game design" terms.

But then there's the violence of the game. As a player myself, in junior high and high school, I eventually discovered that banging into other guys wasn't all that much fun for me. I was neither large nor small for a high school player, but perhaps it is because I am not all that good at tuning out pain, but for whatever reason, I gave up tackle for touch, and that suited my talents and my nature better.

Still, I have liked to watch. The beauty of a great run, or a great pass or catch, or a great tackle-- I can really appreciate what those great athletes on the TV screen are doing.

But then there's the violence of the game. The game I decided not to pursue further after my junior year in high school was clean-fought in suburban Minnesota, where I played. No one, so far as I could tell, tackled or blocked in ways designed to hurt the other guy. Even intimidation did not seem much of a factor, the players seeming rather to be hitting the other guys just to get the job done-- keep the defender away from the ball-carrier, or bring the ball carrier down to the ground.
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The NFL is different in a couple of ways. For one thing, the size and speed and strength of the players raises the stakes in each collision considerably. For another, the spirit of this game is a lot closer to war: the defender doesn't only seek to stop the play, he quite likely wants to do so in a manner that instills fear that will make the opponent hesitate the next time. And sometimes, he wants to knock the opposing player out of the game.

For some years, I've had difficulty navigating my way between these two sets of feelings-- the appreciation of the dance and design of the game, and the repugnance at the damage that's being done to these great warriors' bodies.

It is in that context that I read, with interest and then also dismay and outrage, a story about the league and some of its less fortunate (former) players.

The Neglect of the Disabled NFL Workers

In the September 14, 2007 issue of the journal, THE WEEK, there's a two page story that reprinted from MEN'S JOURNAL, and written by Paul Sotoroff. It's about the plight of some former NFL players. These men --and it seems there are quite a few of them-- have been transformed by the cumulative damage to their bodies from their playing days from stupendous athletes to cripples, sometimes to basket cases. The article describes their pain, their incapacity, their destitution, in some cases their suicides.
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In itself, that's not the issue raised by the article. As Sotoroff says, for many ex-players, the pain is "part and parcel of the warrior life, something to be borne with equanimity and even pride." (He does not include in this acceptance, however, "the rash of brain trauma that has overtaken the sport.")

The issue is how the league deals with --or rather, ignores-- the plight of these players.

Stunningly, no one in the sport has stepped up to address the scope and depth of the injuries-- not the teams, not the owners, and certainly not the one organization charged with looking after the athletes, the NFL Players Association.


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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 

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