San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman has decided to play this season with two torn ligaments in his left knee, despite recommendations from four doctors that he have surgery now. The Chargers’ willingness to go along with Merriman’s decision is puzzling—the fact that they gave his backup a five-year contract extension suggests preparation for contingencies but also a rather cavalier attitude toward the team’s star defensive player. Merriman’s willingness to play handicapped is more puzzling, particularly with his contract expiring after the 2009 season. If all goes well, he’ll play this year, then have surgery, then play next season on a reconstructed knee, then negotiate a free-agent deal based on that year’s performance. Having surgery now would mean being able to start rehab months earlier without risking further damage, then playing healthier in 2009 with his free-agent contract on the line.
Those are the simple calculations, and they add up to an obvious decision for any prudent and pragmatic individual. But Shawne Merriman is an NFL player, not an accountant. His decision doesn’t “make sense,” but if playing in the NFL made sense, not many people would watch it passionately and obsessively.
The timing of this Shawne Merriman debate is particularly apt. In the last few years, there’s been much discussion of what to do about the debilitating injuries that are an outgrowth of playing professional football. We’ve been hearing the outraged testimonies of former players so damaged they cannot function and so broke they can barely survive. These players have pretty much universally cast the NFL Players Association as the villain for failing to take responsibility for their care and livelihood. This is doubly ironic. First, Gene Upshaw (the recently deceased president of the NFLPA) and the union have improved pensions and disability payments for past players even though they had no obligation to do so. Second, blaming the NFLPA implies that ex-players could and should expect nothing from the league and the owners. (It was Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm who, on behalf of the owners, uttered the immortal line to Upshaw during labor negotiations, “You’re the cattle; we’re the ranchers.”)
The question of who should be responsible has no simple answer, but it ignores the deeper issue raised by Shawne Merriman’s decision. NFL fans do not like to see players get injured. They also likely prefer that players not take banned substances—Merriman was suspended for four games in 2006 for taking performance-enhancing drugs—though most of them probably don’t care very much, so long as they don’t have to know about it. What fans certainly do want are players who are big, fast, strong, and willing to take physical risks on every play. Injuries are not incidental to NFL football but necessary. Without them, the game’s risks would not seem real and the players’ heroism (or celebrity) would be diminished. Brett Favre is revered for playing with a broken thumb on his passing hand; guys who refuse to play with pain are despised. No one wants to see a re-enactment of Joe Theismann’s compound fracture on Monday Night Football, but the fact that every quarterback risks such mayhem every time he drops back to pass contributes hugely to the charge we feel when watching the game.
At the same time, neither the league nor the players association is eager for the public to know the extent of the long-term damage to former players. The NFL conducts studies of concussions in order to downplay their seriousness; the NFLPA has commissioned reports by university researchers for internal use but with little publicity. What the public knows about football and injuries has come from investigative journalists. In 1988, the Los Angeles Times surveyed 440 former players, 78 percent of whom reported disabilities. In 1997, Newsday commissioned researchers at Ball State University to survey 1,425 former players for an award-winning report on “Life After Football,” finding that 63 percent reported permanent injuries. Special reports in the Los Angeles Times in 2000 and in the Arizona Republic in 2003 and a 2001 piece in Sports Illustrated on the NFL’s “wrecking yard” confirmed these figures and put faces on them.
While the individual stories are often gruesome—a photograph in Sports Illustrated of ex-Raider Curt Marsh’s stump where his foot was amputated—the aggregate numbers should be more disturbing. A pre-Super Bowl segment on CBS in 2001 reported that 13 percent of players are injured each season and claimed that every player leaves the game with spinal compression and arthritis. Although just a backup offensive lineman and special-teams player for four years in the early 1970s, I can confirm I’ve suffered those maladies myself.
But Shawne Merriman reminds us not to think of NFL players simply as “victims.” His explanation for playing with his torn ligaments—”I just want to play football”—seems evasive or inadequate, but it’s probably that simple. John Babinecz, a linebacker for the Cowboys in the 1970s who later became a pediatrician (a more likely future for a player in the 1970s than in the 1990s or 2000s), told Newsday in 1997 that he knew playing pro football might have cost him 10 years of his life, “but it was such a good part of life, I’d do it again.” He then added, “But I don’t want to hear that I said that”—the medical scientist could not endorse what the former player felt in his heart. In that same 1997 story, other players described a football game as “three hours of complete euphoria” and recalled the “goose bumps and the rush of adrenaline when those fans are roaring.” Among the 1,425 in the Newsday/Ball State study, fully 90 percent—a majority of them crippled—said that, given the choice, they would play football again.
Whatever the drug Shawne Merriman took in 2006, playing in the NFL is probably more addictive. For many players, there is no greater pain than not playing, as Brett Favre also showed us this summer. Every player eventually has to leave the game: Favre soon, Merriman not for several years, we can hope. Thirty and 40 years ago, players left for an uncertain future. A greater part (though not all) of today’s generation at least leaves with enough money for medical insurance and self-funded disability payments. But the experience of playing pro football remains pretty much the same: an incredible short-term high at an immense long-term cost for many. Everyone—players, fans, and owners and their accountants—loves the high and is reluctant to acknowledge the cost or to admit the uneasy truth that it’s the cost that helps make the high possible.