I went to my family reunion today with my Cowboy fan husband. He dutifully mingled among my Steeler fan relatives, and of course sports became the focal point of his conversations. I overheard him talking a lot about Troy Polamalu’s interview on the Dan Patrick Show about his concussions. I tried to keep one ear open to see if he was going to get into it with anyone by trying to say that Troy was an idiot by still playing, which I know he thinks is the case. I have to confess, I wonder myself what kind of conversations go on in the Polamalu household, and how his wife must feel about the pounding he – and notably his head – has taken over the course of his career. She has to be thinking about Junior Seau and wondering if her sensitive, intelligent husband could be heading for the same fate. I would in her place. What I wonder, for my part, is how much responsibility do we, the fans, have to take for these players pushing the limits to the detriment of their health and, in some cases, their lives? Are we so intent on our players being faster, rougher, meaner and more successful than the next team’s guys that we can’t step back and think about what truly is best for the individual players?
Remember Darrell Stingley? I do, but I confess not as a player really. What I knew of him as a young fan was that he was the poster boy for what can happen when football becomes too violent after he was paralyzed in a midair collision with Raider Jack Tatum. It is hard for me to look at any Raider objectively. Part of the territory of being an ardent fan of any team is that you are also likely an anti-fan of some teams. For me, that is anyone in the rest of my division and the Raiders. So, I am not sure I can look at what Tatum did that day or how he played the game overall and judge it equitably. I grew up thinking the head-to-head collision that safety Tatum had with the young wide receiver Stingley in a pre-season game in 1978 that left Stingley with a broken neck and paralyzed was dirty. I grew up thinking Tatum, who was known as the “Assassin”, and the entire Raider team were dirty players. Now, with the benefit of some time, maturity and seasoning in the way of the world, they made some dirty plays in their day, but so did the Steelers of the 70’s. So does everybody. They don’t put you out on the field to lose. People don’t come to the stands in the middle of winter to watch you lose. You do what it takes as a player because you know there are hundreds of others just waiting to take your place.
Darrell Stingley, who passed away in 2007 due to complications from his injury, is not the only player of course who had his life forever negatively impacted by the violence of the game. I do remember Dennis Byrd, defensive tackle for the Jets. I remember the day he was injured. Back in the day before I had my own satellite dish and could watch the Steelers from home, I joined the local Steeler fan club every Sunday at a bowling alley bar where they showed all the NFL games. Steeler fans overran the place for the most part, but there were little caches of other fans huddled here and there. Packer fans probably made up the next largest group, but there were always Jets and Giants fans represented. I remember the gasp of the little group of fans made that caught all our attention, turning us toward their screen. I remember just feeling sick to my stomach watching as he was carted off the field. I went home and considered whether my lust for the game had turned into a bloodlust and whether I should give it up. I didn’t of course. I was right back there the next week.
My husband is convinced that James Harrison is a dirty player based on the hit he laid on Colt McCoy last year. He’s biased of course, so I just ignore his tirades. I’m with the rest of the Steeler Nation in thinking that the league has unfairly targeted him. Then again, I’m biased, so you are welcome to ignore my tirade. But, I have to confess, I worry about the level of violence that is inherent in the game and what it will do to the players I cheer for later in their lives. Because, the player I remember most of all is Mike Webster. I was in the stands the day he was presented his Hall of Fame ring at halftime. That was not Iron Mike out there that day, but a shell of someone who used to be called that. The NFL Players Association estimates that the average lifespan of an NFL player is 58. The average for the general population is 77.8. Think about that. That’s a two decade differential. Iron Mike was dead at 50.
I have concluded that we can help by being supportive when players take their time to recover properly before returning to work (as in Sidney Crosby). We need to respect the league’s work toward player safety and, above all, we need to make sure the league knows we want better long-term benefits for retired players. They entertained us at the expense of their long-term health.