Feed the Machine

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Pro football is about to devour another worker. I know that not many Patriots fans, myself included, harbor any great affection for Shawne Merriman, he of "lights out" fame and steroids infamy. But put fan-animus aside for the moment.

The guy has two torn ligaments in his left knee. The next bad block he fails to fend off may be the last bad block he ever has to worry about. Out for the season, right?

Sports Illustrated:

Surgery will have to wait for Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, who decided Wednesday he'll play this season despite two torn ligaments in his left knee.

 

I'm sorry, but this is completely f-ed up.

There is no way that the San Diego Chargers should permit Mr. Merriman to play for them this season. It shouldn't be allowed; it shouldn't be his decision to make. Here's a guy with his livelihood on the line (he thinks). His identity, his self-worth, his income are all tied to his performance on the field.

By and large, this is a good thing. It has driven him to success, made him one of the best at what he does and as a consequence it has made him a millionaire. But it has also shortened his life. It will certainly reduce his physical comfort for the rest of his time on the planet.

It is not a widely disseminated, downloaded or discussed fact that the average life expectancy for all pro football players, including all positions and backgrounds, is 55 years. Several insurance carriers say it is 51 years.

 

Fifty-five years. Think about that next time you see someone get laid out.

If any other industry in America allowed its workers to be abused in this fashion, there'd be a congressional investigation. Look. I get it. You play football by your choice. You buy the ticket, you take the ride. But be serious for a second: Shawne Merriman was groomed for this, and only this. Sure, that's partly his fault. But it's no accident that we find him here in uniform on fall Sundays. He was identified very early by a ruthlessly capitalistic system as a remarkable talent. He worked his way up through the farm system (High School and NCAA football) and was rewarded with a high draft pick and a big contract. More money in a year than I'll see in my lifetime.

What would your contract demand be, if you had to give up the last 30 years of your life to get it? What price for that?

So what do you think happens when a young man strikes that deal? We all know young men, in peak physical form. Some of us used to be one--myself for instance ("peak physical form" excepted). My own mortality is still a highly theoretical concept to me and I've now reached the ripe old age of 35. If someone had come to me at the age of 22 and said, "You are one of the few people in the world with the ability to be a professional football player. You may get a chance to earn millions, but the likelihood is that you'll probably pull the league minimum--still hundreds of thousands a year. Oh, and by the way, there's a chance you may only live to be 55." Do you know what I would have said? The same thing I would say today, right now, writing this: "Where do I sign?"

It really is too much to pass up, in our little football-loving world. It is a great game to play. And if you're any kind of an athlete -- even if only an intellectual one -- there's an irresistible hook. It's what I like to call "The Marine Challenge."

Here's the Marine Challenge: If you think you're pretty good at something, the second someone tells you you may not be good enough, it may not be right for you, heck, you may not even like it, that's not really what you hear. What you hear is, "Only the strong can make it. Are you strong?" The Few. The Proud. The Hooked.

 

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Left: Hall of Famer Mike Webster, dead at 50 due to complications from "footballer's dementia."

 

Professional football relies on this truth. In training camp, they sweat you--putting you on tenterhooks regarding your job, rookie and vet alike. They squeeze you for every ounce, push your psychology to the limit. You're desperate to make the team, prove yourself, live up to the expectations of the coaches, your teammates, your self. And when they threaten to take it away, to tell you, "Hey. Sundays are over for you," you do anything to keep it. You know how I know Rodney Harrison loves the game? Because Mr. Harrison, a good man, resorted to HGH to get himself back on the field. He was desperate and he was scared that they were going to take his Sundays away.

I'm not arguing that we should abandon the system. I am saying that we need to acknowledge that there is a system, and we need to account for the damage that it does to people who really aren't the best protectors of their own interests. John Wade of the Panthers:

"I'm the one who chose to be a lineman. If I wanted to play football, I was going to be a lineman. That's the skill I was given. If you're really that worried about it, do something else."

 

Ok, I understand that mentality. It makes a lot of sense--in a limited sort of way. Wade was talking about how he basically force-feeds himself to keep his weight up. And maybe that's ok: you can shed weight when you're done with the game. But it's a stupid response when it comes to injuries like Merriman's. Here's why:

Steroids. We strive to create an environment where players don't need to take steroids to compete. We do that because we recognize that steroids are unhealthy and if you do them too much, they can kill you. They make you more susceptible to all kinds of ailments, including cancer. We still haven't succeeded in cleaning up the sport, but we're getting there--slowly. Steroids are too dangerous to players' health, and they are not in a position to say "no" if drugs are the norm.

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Right: Lyle Alzado, died from inoperable brain cancer attributed to high steroid use.

 

If you don't like that example, here's another one: the flying wedge. This was a great way to block for kick returns back in the day. Blockers run back to where the ball is caught, form a wedge, link arms and run up the field. Problem? It was getting people killed. "If you're really that worried about it, do something else." Or you can change the game to protect the health of the players against unreasonable risks. Football is, and should always be, a dangerous sport to play. But it shouldn't routinely result in death or maiming.

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Enter Shawne Merriman and his savaged left knee. If he sits for the season, gets surgery, rehabs and makes a recovery, San Diego can look forward to enjoying the continuing services of Mr. Merriman for at least another two effective years if not more (barring, of course, injury). Or he can play today and be done tomorrow. It's a business decision. "Lights Out" puts butts in the seats. If he performs, ol' Norv might get to keep his job for another year. It might put the Bolts in the 'Bowl, too.

But the ethics of allowing your guy to go to work in this condition are horrid. When you have two torn ligaments in your knee, the chances that you might destroy the other one are pretty good. And that would be that: for the career, for the money, for Sundays, and for your knee. Here you go Mr. Merriman: a stylish cane with a lightening bolt on the knob.

Of course, Merriman wouldn't even get that from the 'Bolts. Just a nice handshake--maybe a number on the ring of fame. Buh-bye! It's been swell. But Shawne really isn't in a position to say "no." He can go, so he goes. That's the norm.

This is where the late Gene Upshaw really, really fell down on the job.  Yes, as head of the NFL Players Association, he got the players more money, better contracts, etc. Free agency. A collective bargaining agreement. But he never attended to player safety. The the Player's Union never asked him to attend to the retirees--including the soon to be retired Mr. Merriman. A tremendous amount of money is made by everyone involved with pro football. The average career is about 3 1/2 years.

In light of all that, it just seems obvious to me that allowing a guy to go out there and compete with a piece of string holding his knee together is just about the most venal thing you can do.

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