“He will bring them death, and they will love him for it.”
Gladiator is one of my favorite movies, and not because Ridley Scott was a historical purist and made sure to develop a story that used absolute fact to craft a wonderful viewing experience. Nope, he packed blood, gore and political intrigue into a potent package that was entertaining while adhering to little actual fact. The movie was an orgy of sword play and death, and my college roommate and I would pop it in and watch it at least once a day. One scene in particular would make us rewind over and over again; the one in which Maximus carves through seven or eight massive mounds of human flesh, picking them apart like Shaq picks apart a buffet. A red curtain would fall over my eyes and I would be taken by a bit of bloodlust as this scene would replay on the television. I’d want to go out and slay my enemies, find a well sharpened sword and take on all who would oppose me. I’d get arrested if I really tried that of course, but this didn’t stop me from fantasizing.
At the end of Gladiator we see Djimon Hounsou’s character Juba burying two figures in the dirt of the closed arena, a fog settled on the grounds that makes it look darker than it has the whole movie, even though the stopping of the gladiatorial matches should have been a bright occurrence, not a drab, depressing one, but it makes a delightful contrast to the rest of the movie. The fighting and the killing are done in beautiful lighting and with an almost reverent touch that mimics how the Roman crowds treated the spectacle displayed before them. With the loss of the gladiators and the shutting down of the coliseum the fog has taken over, obscuring Juba’s surroundings. He and the remaining fighters are free, but their future is obscured, as is the future of the crowd that enjoyed the entertainment.
What does this have to do with anything? Am I just using this space to share my love of a historically inaccurate movie? No. The current field of NFL fans are the new gladiatorial audience, and the players on the field the gladiators. There isn’t nearly the amount of bloodshed on the gridiron and there was in the Roman coliseum, but the toll on the body of an NFL player is just as exacting. We are watching grown men kill themselves for our entertainment, and we refuse to allow them the chance to be safer in the game. Just look at all the former players that have passed away or have taken their lives prematurely. The game is painful and dangerous, and we are cheering grown men killing themselves softly for us. They are risking everything, and when we hear about changes being made to the game we scream about not wanting to have it turned into flag football, that they should put tutus on the QB’s. That is a disgusting way to look at the situation. Last year the NFL implemented new rules when it came to kickoffs, and the crowd went insane. That was a relatively small change. Science has caught up with the game and explains what really happens to the players who strap on the pads for us every Sunday…and Monday, and Thursday, and Saturday. The players are suffering from head trauma. The year before the kickoff rule there were 270 documented concussions, 35 of them on kickoffs; after the rule was implemented there were 266 concussions, 20 of them on kickoffs. While I still think 20 concussions are too much, the drop in number is gratifying.
I remember trying out for my high school football team, and the first day of practice a kid walked up to the coach and told him that he had a buzzing going on in his head and he was feeling sick. Coach told him that once the kid developed a callous around his brain he’d be fine, that the kid just wasn’t used to taking the hits that come along with playing football. WHAT!? A callous around your brain? Now, as a kid you don’t know how to argue against that, and the coach had been around football longer than any of us had, but he was in charge and that was his response. He didn’t check the kid, have him sent to the office or phone his parents with a concern. He just told the kid he had to build a callous. That is the culture of football, ladies and gentleman. That is what we give our money, time and love to. A culture of Neanderthals who think brain injuries are nothing. I love the NFL, but after reading about the damage that is being done to the players, after seeing player after player die young, or kill themselves, I want change. I want to risk my enjoyment of huge hits to make sure these men can live long enough to watch their children grown to be adults, won’t feel depressed because their brain chemistry is screwed up after years of colliding with 300+ pound men 50 times a game for 16+ weeks a year.
I’m scared for the day that I have to hear my son ask me, “Dad, can I play football?” I was allowed to play, and always pictured going to my son’s game with pride, screaming “that’s my kid” when he makes a good play, celebrating his triumphs, watching him be drafted to the NFL (I have lofty dreams). But I don’t know if I could actually let my kid play knowing what I know now. Would I be doing him any favors? I’m also scared one day we’ll see a player drop dead on the field. I remember watching the injury to Buffalo Bills backup tight end Kevin Everett that cost him his career. As players get bigger and stronger, they hit harder and cause more damage. When I was a kid William Perry was a monster in the game at 6’2”, 335 LBS playing defensive tackle. Now you have an Albert Haynesworth clocking in at 6’6” 350. Imagine running into that multiple times a game, multiple times a year. No wonder players soak in ice tubs after competition. Not too many jobs cause employees to soak in ice tubs.
There is a risk attached to the NFL, but fans seem to think it is their risk. The risk that rule changes will make the game less enjoyable, that it will change from the sport they’ve always watched. It has to change though, and the long term repercussions of the sport are making that very evident. These men are risking their lives to entertain us; the least we can do is risk a little enjoyment to make the game safer for them. The future of the game is obscured by fog, but there are enough facts out there to clear the air. Let’s use those facts to help change the game for the better, not let our bloodlust keep it dark and drab and dangerous because we resist change.