There's a lot to think about in Ben McGrath's New Yorker piece on football and brain injury.
But I want to focus in one question that runs through the entire piece and, I think, captures the view of a lot of players:
The previous week, against New England, the Steelers' captain, Hines Ward, had left the game with what the team at first described as a neck injury, which would allow reëntry at the player's discretion, instead of a concussion, which, as of last year, forbids it. But a concussion it was. "It's my body," Ward complained afterward. "I feel like if I want to go back out there I should have the right."
Indeed one of the great problems with dealing with concussions, at a pro level, is that players often lie. Surely there is pressure from coaches, from organizations, and from fans that pushes players to continue while their injured. But my sense has always been that, at the highest level, pro players pride themselves on playing through injury. Jay Cutler strained his MCL in last week's game, and one of the mildest, but most revealing, criticisms he received was from Philip Rivers who said that he'd, "have to be taken off on a cart."
Here is a storied play in Cowboys lore where Jason Witten takes a helmet to helmet hit--loses his helmet--and keeps playing. What are we to make of that? What are we to make of Madden's full-throated endorsement? Of our own?
In some measure, pro football is quite beautiful because it gives us human beings willingly giving up themselves for something they love. I don't have any real way to relate to that. The closest I can come (and this is not very close) is to imagine a world where I knew writing would likely knock a few decades off my life. I think I'm a little different from my peers, in that I've never felt fit for much else. Perhaps in that world I'd be prompted to discover I was wrong. But as I am, I think I'd lose the years.
This is a separate question from the responsibility of the viewer. There's no real reason why I have to sit and watch Hines Ward destroy his body. He may be welcome to the right, but I don't have to subsidize that right. In all honesty, I think I do because there's something of my own aspirations in the thing. To commit yourself so completely, to stand for a militant vivacity, instead of a bland longevity is attractive and inspiring. I think of Emmitt Smith and his separated shoulder at the most awkward, and seemingly, inappropriate times. I think of Muhammad Ali giving his body to George Foreman, and then refusing to punch as he falls, as a kind of masterwork.
This is not a defense, or an end to debate. I am laying out my attracton. I'm not convinced of its rightness, or unassailable morality. This is just public thinking, nothing else.