There are a lot of things that a man can safely do after suffering a couple of serious head traumas in a relatively short period of time — say, gather the mail, or perhaps even draw water from a deep well — but it is almost certainly not advisable to be sacked five times by the Oakland Raiders. Just the same, this past weekend Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger started in Oakland a week after suffering his second concussion in a period of three months. Rather unsurprisingly, he played badly, throwing four interceptions and looking a little tipsy overall as the Steelers fell to 2-5 against one of the league's low rung teams. As fantastically distinguished a start to his career as Big Ben has experienced, it's begun to seem ominously unlikely that this will be a ten- or twelve-year enterprise he is embarking upon. I am frankly agog that Roethlisberger was even in the game. Having witnessed in recent years the premature end to the careers of such all-time great quarterbacks as Steve Young and Troy Aikman by dint of the very frightening-sounding “multiple concussion syndrome”, it is boggling to me that the typically sensible and forward-looking Steelers would consider mortgaging their future for a Week Seven tilt against a one win team. There seems little doubt that veteran backup Charlie Batch, who filled in more than capably for Roethlisberger earlier this season, would have given his team at least as good a chance without running the risk of scrambling their superstar quarterback's eggs for all eternity.
I think that as fans we frequently overlook the degree of sheer physical duress under which professional athletes are constantly expected to perform. I remember a couple of years ago when the talented but injury-prone Falcons defensive end John Abraham was still playing for the Jets and, owing to a lingering groin problem, was unable to play in their two postseason games. James Joyce speaks of “the snow falling faintly upon all the living and all the dead,” but does not conjecture as to how the snow might fall upon those with a serious groin pull. Having recently experienced my first injury of this kind, allow me then to make amends for this literary shortfall: nothing falls faintly on a person in this state. Every step and gesture is a thundering, tearful agony. Nevertheless, the prevailing wisdom in the papers and especially the local talk show circuit held that however nettlesome Abraham's injury, it surely could not be severe enough to justify missing the playoffs. The unanimity on this point was striking: this player was essentially honor-bound to “shoot it up and go.” I didn't much like it at the time, and in my current predicament I am now fully persuaded of the inequity of this public verdict. Perhaps Abraham is a malcontent, a lollygagger, a locker room cancer. Perhaps not. I have no idea and no way of finding out. What I can confirm is that if his groin malady was anything like this thing I've got going now he was probably too busy praying for sweet release from sentient humanity to memorize much of the game plan. To bull-rush a starting left tackle through a roiling sea of pain-induced hallucination is a lot to ask of anyone.
NFL enthusiasts tend to fetishize certain famous, grotesque acts of extreme physical courage: Jack Youngblood and Terrell Owens playing Super Bowls on partially healed broken legs, or Ronnie Lott getting the tip of his finger cut off mid-season rather than miss any playing time due to surgery. And certainly this psychotic behavior suggests a real commitment by these men to their craft. But I mean, is this really that great an idea?
A common refrain amongst those who follow sports decrees that athletes earn enormous sums of money and thus should be happily made to endure grievous physical hardships. I guess that's kind of true, but I wonder if that is really what they are being paid for? Certainly many entertainers are paid much more for providing considerably less amusement at no injurious cost. It is perhaps desirable, but certainly not conceivable, to think of Mel Gibson being pressured into performing dangerous stunts on a fractured ankle. That the insufferable irritant Jim Carrey was payed $20 million a movie all throughout the 1990's to mug and caper and was never subjected to even one crippling hit from Cowboys safety Roy Williams seems manifestly unjust.
In the NFL in particular, where careers are short, contracts are never guaranteed, and the extent of the physical toll is often life-altering, it has always been difficult for me to comprehend the relative lack of empathy directed towards rehabilitating athletes. One need only to conjure the image of such great former running backs as Earl Campbell and Terrell Davis, broken and arthritic to an almost sadistic degree at far too young an age, to have a sense for what these players are sacrificing. Those aren't even extreme examples: it is entirely common to see role players as well as superstars hobbled in the manner of serious accident victims. While the average life of an NFL player's career is between 3 and 4 years, their life expectancy is around 62, or ten years shorter than the typical American male. Ten years! These are the sort of statistics one tends to associate with crocodile hunters and members of bands fronted by Jimi Hendrix, not with elite professional athletes. It is a fairly daunting thing to consider. Much as a habitual chain smoker makes an accommodations with his decision not to quit and all of the related ramifications, so must these guys know they may well be taking years off their lives each football Sunday.
One imagines that all of this must have been front and center in the mind of Giants running back Tiki Barber as he announced last week that this current season would be his last. This disclosure was at once startling and utterly sensible. There is always something profoundly dissonant about seeing any athlete retire at or near the peak of his powers. Such events take place so infrequently that they are almost inevitably greeted with a pronounced strain of skepticism bordering on outright disbelief. Comeback rumors followed Jim Brown for nearly twenty years after his retirement at age 29, and it is only very recently that it has been fully accepted by all but the most criminally insane that Barry Sanders has rushed for his last pirouetting three-yard loss. But my sense is that Barber is really done, and not just owing to his evident Napoleonic ambition to conquer the broadcasting world. More than that, NFL franchises have always treated players as conveniently disposable and employed certain antiquated notions of courage and loyalty to pressure them into frequently acting against there own self interest. When Barber got into a sniping match this past week with former NFL players and current ESPN reporters Michael Irvin and Tom Jackson, I think this specific issue is implicitly what they were arguing about. When Jackson and Irvin upbraided Tiki's retirement announcement as a distraction to the team, his response (calling them 'idiots') felt in a sense like a sort fourth wall breaking, an intelligent football star recognizing the eroding double-edged fantasy of old-time team loyalty. “Before they use me up completely and leave me by the side of the road, I am outta here,” Barber seemed to be saying, groin and brains intact, heading off clear-headed into the sunset.