This is the week. Thursday night the NFL opens its season with the Baltimore Ravens playing the Denver Broncos. Sunday marks the debut of my beloved Green Bay Packers, in a grudge match against the San Francisco 49ers, the team that knocked us out of the playoffs last January.
Normally I’d be floating on air this week, with a spring in my step akin to dancing. I’d be grinning, humming the Packer fight song, feeling that all’s right with the world and life is worth living again. But this year I’m greeting the new season with mixed feelings.
Earlier this week the NFL settled its concussion lawsuit with 4,500 former players for $765 million. When you consider NFL revenues of $10 billion a year, the league got off cheaply. The payout averages $166,000 per claimant. That’s going to help some people, but it’s a pittance given today’s medical costs. Moreover, the league is admitting to no responsibility for the players’ injuries and is not bound to share what it knows about concussions—despite studies about football and concussions that go back to the 1930s.
Playing with pain has always been part of the game, and the ability to do it is part of what makes us fans adore our modern gladiators. As a Green Bay supporter for over fifty years, I grew up with this culture. Packer aficionados still tell the story of defensive tackle Dave “Hawg” Hanner playing an entire game in 1961 a few days after having his appendix removed. More recently, quarterback Brett Favre compiled his “Iron Man” streak of 297 consecutive starts despite injuries that included at least one concussion, a sprained knee, injuries to his back, right arm, shoulder, elbow, and even a broken thumb. (I always thought Favre played just a little bit better when he was hurting.)
But what terrible stories have surfaced in the media over the past few years! Former NFL players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau committed suicide by shooting themselves in their chests, leaving their brains intact so that scientists could examine them for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative disease linked to multiple concussions. Jim McMahon, the “punky QB” of the Super Bowl-winning 1985 Chicago Bears, suffers from dementia in his early fifties. There are additional horror stories that aren’t about concussions. Onetime Cincinnati Bengal Reggie Williams faces possible amputation after twenty-four surgeries on his mangled knee. Favre’s Packer predecessor Don Majkowski suffers not only from post-concussion syndrome, but also from degenerative disc disease and a locked and painful ankle. He’s unable to work—or even sit comfortably—at forty-nine.
In June, Lem Barney, a former Detroit Lion and Hall of Famer who was one of the plaintiffs in the concussion suit, said he could envision the NFL being abolished in ten or twenty years because the game has become so deadly. These may be the words of a guy who’s been hit in the head too often—isn’t that the point?—but it’s not impossible that the game will need to be drastically modified to make it safer for the players.
For me as a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, abolishing football is an incredible notion. Pro football represents a large part of the city’s economy, and it’s what separates Green Bay from hundreds of other medium-sized Midwestern cities. Green Bay won’t be unique, special, or a tourist mecca if it has to depend only on its other main industries—cheese and toilet paper.
My heroes are falling down around me, but I don’t want my hometown to die.
So where does that leave me, this first week in September? Feeling excited about a new season, but also sad, mad, and confused. In my opinion, the NFL settlement provides too little, too late. And it’s just too neat that the suit was settled right before the first week of the season. Obviously the league is eager for the issue to go away.
Normally I’d be sitting in front of a TV next Sunday, screaming for Packer linebacker Clay Matthews to drive 49er QB Colin Kaepernick into the ground. After all, I first noticed Matthews in the Packers’ 2010 opener, when he knocked Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb out of the game. I marveled at his intensity and rejoiced that he belonged to my team.
So what do I do this year? Root for Matthews to get the sack, but cheer only when he helps Kaepernick up and watches him trot, unharmed, back to his huddle? I won’t stop watching football; it’s played too big a part in my life. I don’t know what else to do.
If you’d like to hear from writers who are more informed than I am on this subject, here are some links:
Read ‘em and let me know what you think. I’m feeling a little lost here.