Before we allow this very important debate about the importance of player safety in pro football to disintegrate into a silly exercise of infantile name-calling (oops, too late for that), I was actually hoping that some genuine good could come out of the darkness.
So much for my hopes and dreams.
Even when smart people try to talk intelligently about the very obvious and painful facts of the essence of the NFL — that it is wildly popular, inherently dangerous, intoxicatingly irresistible and, yes, desperately needs to be fixed — these truth tellers are greeted with strong resistance.
So Kurt Warner goes on television in the wake of Junior Seau’s death and the former Rams quarterback has the common sense to say something that a lot of people are thinking — that he’s scared about the inherent dangers of the game — and he’s assailed by former players (see: Merril Hoge and Amani Toomer) whose idea of addressing this is to slap duct tape on everyone’s mouths, cover their eyes and tell everyone to enjoy the view.
Thankfully, Warner is not alone. Thankfully, he’s one of the growing legions of former players who are honest enough to admit that they’re scared of what the game they love may have done to them. That doesn’t make Warner a traitor. It makes him an important voice that needs to be heard, not shouted down.
On the Dan Patrick Show, Warner was asked if he wanted his sons to play the game and he admitted his reluctance. “(It) scares me,” he said. “They both have the dream, like (their) dad, to play in the NFL. When you hear things like the bounty and when you understand the size, the speed, the violence of the game, and you couple that with Junior Seau and was that a (ramification) of playing all those years, it’s a scary thing for me.”
Anyone who has been paying attention to the headlines in the NFL over the past 15 months has surely at least considered how they feel about the nation’s most popular sport. Tales of bounties, lawsuits and suicides will do that to even the most devoted football lover. So why not Warner?
So it must have surprised him that his intelligent observations were greeted with such hostility. Hoge, who like Warner earns his living now on TV as an NFL commentator, said on ESPN that Warner’s words were “irresponsible and unacceptable. He has thrown the game that has been so good to him under the bus. He sounds extremely uneducated.”
No, he sounds positively enlightened and profoundly human. Warner ought to be commended, not criticized. I love that he hasn’t backpedaled with a softer version of the truth. Instead, he’s talking more, and doing it in the most unlikely place of all: the league-owned NFL Network.
“It’s disappointing that you can’t have an opinion, and it can’t start dialogue,” Warner said on Monday night’s NFL All-Access show. “It’s OK to differ, it’s OK to disagree with my opinion, but I always hope that it can start dialogue. Everybody can share their points of view and we can combine all of that to make a better world or a better game for those that are growing up and that are going to play.”
Saying this on NFL Network is no small thing. It would be easy for the league to try to silence Warner. Instead, it gave him a larger platform. It’s just another sign that the league has clearly changed its institutional attitude about the dangers of traumatic head injuries and its willingness to conduct meaningful public dialogue on the subject.
With the very public discipline against the New Orleans Saints and the stiff penalties for the excessive hits over the past few seasons, Commissioner Roger Goodell has decided, regardless of what we may feel are his ultimate motivations, that he has to change the culture of his industry. There are countless safeguards in place that will go a long way toward preventing long-term damage to the men who sacrifice their bodies for the good of the game.
Thankfully, the changes that the league is making now to deal with head trauma among active players is the right way to go. But it’s not enough. It must be to go back and correct the mistakes of the past. There is a reason thousands of former players are placing their names on lawsuits. When you see that there is enough circumstantial evidence that the old NFL seems to have engaged in tactics that covered up the dangers of concussions, reasonable folks would say that reparations are the solution.
When you hear the stories of how the NFL and the NFLPA continue to pass the buck on who is responsible for footing the hefty bill that will go toward providing what will solve one large issue — critical lifetime health benefits that these retired players deserve and earned — it makes both Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith sound as heartless as tobacco executives denying their past sins.
Bryan Burwell is a Lee News Service columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (314) 340-8185.