Who would ever choose a career that accelerates their own physical and mental deterioration?
It’s a question that athletes in the National Football League must ask themselves every day, and one that could someday endanger the entire league as a whole.
The NFL has arguably never been more popular. Every one watches it. The Super Bowl is one of the biggest events of the year, and with so many corporate sponsors and television deals, the league practically prints money.
Football also satisfies people’s innate desire to watch other human beings physically abuse one another. It dates back to ancient Rome when, for sport, gladiators fought each other to the death. Don’t deny it — there’s something extremely comforting about sitting on your couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon watching our nation’s premiere athletes duke it out.
And that’s part of the problem. The demand for high quality football has risen the standards for peak physicality and fitness among athletes. As a result, the players are hitting each other harder, and with greater consequence.
Last week, Chris Borland, a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, stunned the sports world when he announced he was retiring from the NFL at age 24. He played just one season, and said he he made the decision to protect his long-term health after conducting extensive research.
It’s not uncharted territory for an NFL athlete to retire young. One of the all-time greatest running backs, Barry Sanders, hung up his cleats at 30 in 1998, when he was at the top of his game. New York Giants running back Tiki Barber quit at 31 in 2006 when he was also in the peak of his career, in order to pursue a career in television.
But to retire voluntarily at 24, coming off a promising rookie season and walk away from millions of dollars, is unprecedented, and it will be interesting to see how many others follow in his footsteps.
The health risks involved with playing in the NFL are well documented. Former players have committed suicide because their health dwindled so badly after retirement. Recently, it was discovered that athletes who have a sustained career in violent sports are more likely to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head injuries or concussions.
In August 2013, the NFL reached a settlement of $765 million after being sued by thousands of NFL players who claimed that the league failed to properly educate and protect players.
And later this year, a movie about the league’s concussion epidemic is set to come out, which will make the issue even more widespread.
So why do it? Why subject yourself to such brutality when the dangers involved are so widely publicized?
Obviously there’s the financial aspect. Succeeding in the NFL can net you a fortune, but that’s only if you’re lucky enough to stay healthy. Most athletes don’t make enough money to last anywhere near the rest of their lives. So what is it, then?
One athlete, John Urschel, 23, of the San Diego Chargers — who doubles as a mathematical researcher — answered that question in a recent article he wrote in the Players Tribune, an online media platform for athletes to directly share their own stories with readers. And his explanation had nothing to do with money.
“I play because I love the game,” Urschel wrote. “I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you.”
Sometimes we forget the simplest reasons why people do things: They love it.
It’s the same reason why NASCAR racers drive 200 miles per hour on narrow speedways, or why Evel Knievel jumped over 14 Greyhound buses 40 years ago.
Despite the danger, football is something that some people who are good at can’t live without.
We don’t get to choose what we’re good at. Heck, a lot of people hate doing what they’re good at. And while some may still consider it an unwise decision for NFL players to continue playing football despite the health risks, we can at least begin to understand why.
Because they like doing it.
Since childhood, aren’t we told to do what makes us happy? To follow our dreams and pursue the things we love?
How hypocritical would it be, then, if we told NFL players to stop playing football, even if they loved it?
It’s easy for me to say — I’m good at writing. The biggest danger associated with that is carpal tunnel syndrome and the risk that I may offend people by saying something extremely racist.
Don’t call me a hero.
Unless you want to. I won’t stop you.