NFL games go on despite fragile players

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2012 - 8:29 AM

We cheer our modern-day warriors, even as evidence mounts on brain damage affecting athletes long past their glory days.

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Former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, trustee for the Burt Bell/Pete Rozell NFL Player Retirement Plan, right, accompanied by former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007, before the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the National Football League Retirement System.

Photo: Susan Walsh, Associated Press

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It was Christmas Eve. The Vikings had just won a meaningless game at FedEx Field against the Washington Redskins, another team playing out a hopeless season.

In the visiting locker room after the game, Vikings players were walking around welted and relieved as tight end Visanthe Shiancoe pulled his helmet down from his locker and held it as if to perform Shakespeare.

The sides gleamed purple and gold. The front did not. The crest of his helmet looked like a Jackson Pollock painting, a spattered witness to a season's mayhem. Shiancoe, his helmet playing Yorick, explained why he is spending the best years of his life smashing into other speeding hulks, risking brain and spine, even with little at stake.

"Man, this is what we do," he said. "We want to win. And we want to play for the man next to us. We are gladiators, man. Warriors."

He tapped the part of his helmet that resembled moonscape and said, "You've got to put yourself on the line to play this game."

Juxtaposition is clarifying. If you visited any sports website Wednesday afternoon, the headlines to stories detailed three of the most troubling developments in the sports world in our generation:

• Baseball's steroid scandal, manifested in Roger Clemens' trial.

• The NFL bounty scandal, manifested in the league's crackdown on Saints players for planning to injure opponents.

• The rise of concussions and concussion awareness, manifested, perhaps, in the apparent suicide of former NFL great Junior Seau.

The problems faced by today's NFL makes the notion of ballplayers inflating their muscles in an attempt to hit baseballs far almost charming.

Authorities said Seau apparently took his own life with a shot to the chest. Former Bear Dave Duerson also killed himself with a shot to his chest, and left a note asking that his brain be studied to increase awareness of how head injuries affect football players. Duerson believed hits to his head left him mentally impaired.

The NFL never has been more popular, or more endangered. Every year what was once suspected moves closer to universally accepted fact: Human beings shouldn't play tackle football, at least at the level of violence required by professional coaches.

Malicious hits have become such an important part of the NFL that players, for the Saints and other teams, have defended the bounty system as nothing more than a bureaucratic form of violence as usual. Every NFL defender knows he should knock opponents out of the game, or just out; the Saints were the rare team arrogant enough to systemize their goals.

If Seau indeed committed suicide, and if he indeed shot himself in the chest so his brain could be studied, we will have another reminder of the NFL's punitive laws of physics: Current NFL players are so explosive that allowing them to smash into each other at will is criminal.

The NFL knows that it could be facing a wave of lawsuits from current and former players. That's one reason the league has levied such harsh penalties on the Saints: to make a public show of punishing at least premeditated and illicitly funded violence.

Concussions and concussions symptoms have damaged hockey and even baseball players. In football, they have become an epidemic.

This winter Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman questioned whether the NFL will be able to maintain its status as America's most popular sport. He cited over-saturation, but also his concern about concussions, and said if he had a son, "I don't know if I would be encouraging him to play."

Football used to leave players with a limp, or a forefinger useful for giving directions down Lombard Street. Now football leaves some of its alumni addled and depressed, even suicidal.

Shiancoe was right: Football players are our gladiators, and in Rome the gladiator oath read: "I will endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword."

Even ancient Rome, amid the rise of Christianity, eventually banned gladiator games.

Will the NFL, confronted with so much evidence of brain damage, evolve?

Will we?

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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