Life After the NFL

Life After the NFL

In a pure gladatorial sport, no one committed suicide, whether as a by-product of brain injuries or anything else for that matter. The loser was killed, instantly, or perished soon after the competition. Injury prevention and treatment wasn’t a huge priority where wins and losses were gauged by the immediacy of survival.

At the rate of approximately one per year over the past decade, NFL players are killing themselves. By all accounts, these deaths are an escape from the distorting ravages of head injuries and a game that tears apart the body and now evidently the mind week by week, concussive hit by hit.

NFL players have died and are dying at a ridiculous rate by other causes as well. The violence that marks their lives on the field has carried over into their personal lives. The rate of murder and violent early death of NFL players eclipses that of all other major sports combined. The off-the-field issues are the stuff of doctoral dissertations in sociology, race relations, urban culture, and the sad cult of personality in professional sport, where the larger-than-life rapidly devolves into the mortal.

The on-field issues are actually very simple.

When I developed my love of the famed National Football League as a kid, the players were large. They were reasonably fast, heavy and wore thick padding, made of resilient foams and cottons. When I played football, as a quarterback, I had little to protect me. I didn’t appear superheroic in my uniform and one bar facemask. I appeared a padded version of my child self.

Today’s NFL players are massive. They are lightning-fast, weigh more than two humans should weigh and wear body armor. Even the quarterbacks wear protective equipment better than SWAT teams wore twenty years ago. Today’s helmets are venomous swords, not protective shields. And they are used as such.

I hate to belabor the obvious, but I’m going to belabor the obvious:

very large people + very fast speeds + weapons of bodily destruction + repetition = life-changing injuries

I had a sports concussion once. It sucked. I was a hockey goalie and went behind my net to stop a puck from crossing to the other side. I remember getting hit from behind, as my head crunched into the boards (this part I was told but don’t recall) and that’s about it. I remember feeling really nauseous when I was on the ice (in my very 1970s un-protective Jacques Plante-style mask – no helmet), and that continued for a few days. Then, recklessly, I was back in the game, still winning, so everything must have been hunky and dory. I can imagine that weekly hits of the same sort and variety would have perhaps resulted in, well, something decidedly ungood. But that’s exactly what NFL players endure each week in a sport that, its fierce elegance aside, is killing men.

I still love the NFL and the game of football. But I don’t want my son to ever play anything more than flag football. The crazy irony is that if NFL players played the game with no equipment at all, we would see almost none of the injuries that we see today. I truly believe that with no padding, serious injuries would be decreased by 90%.

I believe this for the critically important reason that how one makes a tackle or other hit with today’s equipment is different than how one was taught in traditional football instruction. Without equipment, players would hit different parts of the opponent’s body, in different ways, with different effect. If you don’t believe that an NFL helmet is a weapon, find one and (try to) pick it up. Find a pair of NFL shoulder pads too. Then reread my piece.

The number of NFL players living a daily hell, those unable to care for or feed themselves, the collective number of lost memories – it’s all unacceptable, a hideous reflection of America’s deepest-seeded sports traditions.

For the players whose efforts on every given Sunday wove the fabric of the game, life after the NFL was not supposed to be premature death and disability, yet, in far too many cases, it is.


Aron Solomon is a global strategist, planting things at the intersection of education and innovation. He likes ice-cold light American beer, catching foul balls in his Rawlings, and can be followed on Twitter @aronsolomon


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Aron Solomon

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Comments (1)

  1. Sameer Vasta Friday - 25 / 10 / 2013 Reply
    I played football when I was young and into college, and while I was nowhere close to being NFL-caliber, I feel the repercussions of my football years every single day. I have no knee (it's mostly plastic and reconstructed ligaments in there), my joints fall apart every time there's a change in the atmospheric pressure, and I get constant headaches (and worry, every time, that the three concussions — and those are just the ones that were officially diagnosed — will eventually catch up to my brain), and have suffered from depression that doctors believe could be related to trauma. I can't imagine how NFL players deal with post-football life; when I hear of stories like Duerson and Seau, I can empathize and almost relate, but their horrors are at a scale much larger than mine. While I really want my children to play football, I worry about the state of the sport by then. We were taught how to tackle when I was a child, but these days it feels like players are taught to "hit", not tackle. New equipment might be a problem, but I'm also convinced that football instruction needs a fundamental change, as well.

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