Sports Nut

Awesome Gridiron Action … or Athletes Destroying Themselves for Our Pleasure?

Saints quarterback Drew Brees

Stefan, Nate, Tom:

There are three ways to watch pro football. You can, of course, go to a game in person—drive to the stadium, tailgate, pee in a trough (men only), shout obscenities at Daniel Snyder, and so forth. Or, as many of us prefer, you can skip the crowd and the trough and watch at home. Sure, you’ll miss the roar of the crowd, but you’ll be able to see the game—how a quarterback made a particular read, whether a runner inched past the goal line—in a way you never could in person. The third way to consume the NFL is to feast on the highlight packages constructed after the games are over, to fall under the sway of the NFL Films mythmakers who chop out all the TV timeouts and splice in grand narratives about gladiators in shoulder pads.

While it’s easy to mock this third way, I have to confess that I’m susceptible to the pro football fairy tales. Yes, I’m marking the minutes until the Wednesday night premiere of America’s Game: 2009 New Orleans Saints, the hourlong, Brad Pitt-narrated documentary on the reigning Super Bowl champs. Productions like these aren’t just keepsakes for obsessive fans who salivate at the sight of Tracy Porter’s game-clinching interception. They also reveal how the NFL sees itself—as a yearly drama, an ultimate test of skill and sacrifice, a cradle of heroes.

If we’re feeling less mystical, we might also say that the NFL is a place where men destroy each other’s brains for our enjoyment. Pro football’s decision-makers long ignored the risks of head injuries because they didn’t fit the warrior image the NFL has pushed so hard to create. In the past year, however, the league has finally admitted that “concussions can lead to long-term problems.” And this season, every NFL locker room will feature a warning that concussions “can change your life and your family’s life forever.” I’m curious to hear what you guys think: Will increased scrutiny of brain injuries endanger the NFL’s position as America’s favorite game? Will we see an NFL Films documentary on how concussions destroyed Mike Webster’s frontal lobe? Or will we just continue to express concern about brain injuries as we cheer the big hits on Sunday?

As fans, we don’t often think about the toll the game takes on players’ bodies and minds—after all, we have fantasy teams to manage. Stefan, you had a chance to assess the damage from up close when you went to training camp with the Denver Broncos. You also wrote about the drudgery of the meeting room, the microanalysis by coaches, the constant paranoia that you’re going to be cut—not exactly a shiny, happy endorsement of life in the NFL. And Nate, you managed to survive the daily grind and the minute-by-minute pain for six years. (One highlight of which was sharing the Denver locker room with a 43-year-old, gray-haired kicker with two blown ACLs.) The essay you wrote recently for the New York Times’ Fifth Down blog makes a six-year career sound amazingly long. “The NFL is home to the strongest, most explosive athletes on the planet,” you wrote. “Being hit over and over again by these men is a painful ordeal, not so much as it’s happening, but after the fact: after practice, late at night, early in the morning. Morning is the worst.”

We’ll hear some talk about pain during Thursday night’s NFL opener between the Saints and Vikings, but it will all relate back to performance: How will Brett Favre’s troublesome ankle hold up? Will Jonathan Vilma be able to play through a groin injury? The best view we get of how pro football’s sausage gets made comes from HBO’s training camp series Hard Knocks, but (as you pointed out a few years ago, Stefan) we’re still seeing a high-gloss, NFL-approved sausage. So, should we care what the players—excuse me, the overpaid louts who have the privilege to play a game for a living—have to go through to entertain us? Oh, and why do coaches have to yell so much—whatever happened to killing ‘em with kindness?


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