President Barack Obama’s remarks this week that if he “had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football” have drawn a broad range of reactions, including some agreement even from NFL players whose livelihood depends on the sport.
Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, a fierce hitter whose sterling career has been marred by a series of painful injuries, concurred.
“I am with Obama. … I am not forcing football on my son,” Reed said to Yahoo News. “All I can do is say, ‘Son, I played it so you don’t have to.’ … When you’ve got the president talking about it, you’ve got something.”
Indeed, when a sport sees a wave of post-retirement bankruptcies and suicides among its veteran players such as the NFL has endured in recent years, it’s time to see what can be done to make football sustainable.
Obama, in speaking to The New Republic, said he was also concerned by NCAA student-athletes who suffer career-ending injuries “and then have nothing to fall back on.”
One side of this is that athletes should bear responsibility for becoming well-rounded adults who can contribute to society. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the NFL has shown a pattern of chewing up and spitting out healthy young men with little regard for their post-football lives. Nor should we overlook the warped, misleading concepts of “toughness” that permeate sports and threaten the safety of amateur and high school athletes.
Too many young athletes are taught that “ironmen” never miss a down because of their sheer force of will and an extremely high threshold for pain. In reality, durability and toughness are two different things. Consider the durability of tiny NFL halfbacks Barry Sanders and Tiki Barber, who eluded opponents and enjoyed much longer careers than bruisers such as Earl Campbell – whose toughness was undeniable, and whose injuries put him into a wheelchair.
Players who are injured, however, face unreasonable second-guessing if they miss games. Take Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who left a 2010 playoff game with a knee injury after being told to do so by team doctors. Several former and current NFL players implied that Cutler simply wasn’t tough enough to endure the pain.
Was it really a surprise, then, when Washington Redskins rookie phenom Robert Griffin III tried to “tough out” a similar injury in this year’s playoffs, only to see the tendons in his unstable knee torn to shreds while attempting to catch a low snap from center? That’s what happens when the result of one game takes precedent over a player’s long-term health. For the sake of football in the long term, this must change.