but let me take this opportunity to protest the possible extension of the NFL season by as many as two games.
Want to know why I have no problem whatsoever with NFL players making boatloads of money? It’s because once those players retire in their mid-30s, they will have the bodies and minds of 70 year olds. Don’t get me wrong; I love football, I loved playing it as a kid, I love watching college and professional pigskinery when it comes on television and I feel wistful when the respective seasons come to an end–even though my own beloved Chicago Bears like to make it wrenching for me to watch them. But my love for football does not mean that I ought to be blind to the havoc it wreaks on the bodies of those who play it.
Once professional football players leave the sport, they are forced to contend with debilitating arthritis that wracks their bodies while most people, similarly aged, are still enjoying remarkably good physical health. Ever see the great Johnny Unitas–a quarterback whom I never saw live, but whom I idolized merely through reading about his exploits–try to sign an autograph after having left the game? He would have to contort his hand in a way that almost turned one’s stomach. The arm that defeated the Giants in The Greatest Game Ever Played went through twists and torture when its master tried to sign his name for an adoring fan. One of Unitas’s favorite targets on the field was John Mackey. Dynamic and lethal as a player, his retirement from the game saw the onset of dementia that surely was the consequence of all of the hits Mackey took in his playing days and the damage it did to his brain tissue. And of course, Mackey’s case is not unique. Read this without wincing, if you can. Since when are the brains of 45 year olds supposed to resemble those of 80 year olds with Alzheimer’s?
Yes, NFL players chose their lives. No one forced them into their careers and they are quite happy to be making all of the money they make and enjoying all of the fame they enjoy. Yes, they assume the risks. And yes, the decision to extend the NFL season is solely within the province of the NFL.
But that doesn’t make the decision to extend the NFL season a good one. If two games are added to the regular season, then within the course of 8 years, we are going to add an extra year to the playing life of an NFL player. That’s one more year of courting arthritis and massive brain damage. And this doesn’t even count the playoffs, when a player may play as many as four games, including the Super Bowl. Just how much punishment are NFL players supposed to endure, anyway?
Loving football as I do, it would be easy for me to ask that the regular season be extended to 20 games. But I love football enough to want and hope that players, once they retire, are able to enjoy their lives, rather than suffer the horrible physical consequences of their playing days. Some damage to one’s body is unavoidable. But when one considers the degree to which the health of NFL players is harmed by their choice of career, extending the NFL season smacks of sheer madness. Just because the players assume the risks of the sport does not mean that we ought to pile on the pain.