The Super Bowl is, at its core, a party. It is the NFL’s celebration of itself and its awesomeness. And like any party, there are certain unwritten rules of etiquette. There are things you just do not talk about — and safety is one of them.
So when an interview in which President Obama said that, if he had a son he’d “have to think long and hard” about letting him play football, popped just as San Francisco and Baltimore ascended to the sport’s biggest stage, there was this sense almost to a man that the questions he raised were the problem instead of the actual problem of players dying. And then there was Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed.
“I’m with the president. I’m with Obama, man,” he said when I asked about Obama’s comments. “I am with Obama because I have a son. I’m not forcing football on my son. If he wants to play it … that is what I would probably say to Obama. ‘If your son wants to play it, how do you feel about that then? Do you let him play? Do you turn him away from it?’ Because you can’t make decisions for him at the end of the day. All you can say is ‘Son, I played it so you don’t have to.’ ”
Reed’s was the most honest, thoughtful and ethical stance of any players I talked to Monday. It also was the loneliest. It was lost amid a crush of machismo and denial.
Here’s the frustrating thing about most football players. They are less concerned about their health than everybody else is at the moment. This is most likely a coping mechanism, a necessary one when your life’s work is launching oneself head first into another human at sometimes literally neck-breaking speeds. So they talk about how it takes a certain kind of man and how their sons will be that kind of man and they seem genuinely perplexed when somebody points out that that kind of man has been blowing his heart out with a .357 magnum with increasing frequency.
Nor does it matter if that somebody is The POTUS.
Obama simply added his voice to a chorus of neurologists and former players and NFL widows when he told The New Republic that the health risks assumed by football players for his enjoyment pricked his conscience.
This is a football fan. This is a man’s man, by any definition, a guy who greenlighted a risky plan to go get Osama bin Laden. So what does it say that Obama’s message was met with player after player and both coaching Harbaughs turning this into some sort of litmus test of manliness?
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who I really like and respect, actually recounted a story about his dad, a former coach, telling a story of how your first tackle or block is “a little bit of a manhood test” because it is so hard. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, who rarely shows a personality, much less a sense of humor, cracked a joke.
“Well, I have a 4-month, soon to be 5-month-old son, Jack Harbaugh. And if President Obama feels that way, then there will be a little less competition for Jack Harbaugh when he gets older.”
Everybody laughed. People are dying. People like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson are bleeping killing themselves and we are cracking jokes. Really? Reed and Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs were the only players to even bring up Seau, his death the elephant in every talk with players.
This is not to say football needs to go away, merely that an honest discussion needs to be had about whether football, in its current form, can ever be safe. And if not, can we live with players taking these risks for our Sunday pleasure?
“I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence,” Obama said. “In some case, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”
The flawed assumption he makes is that we are examining our consciences. We most certainly are not. We are less than a week away from the Super Bowl, and football has never been more popular. Hell, the Pro Bowl did bigger numbers than a World Series game. We love it as is, violent and dangerous and messy. And players know it.
Ravens safety Bernard Pollard perfectly summarized the Catch-22 the league and players find themselves in in this regard. What fans love about football is its violence. Its violence ultimately will destroy it. Talking to Clark Judge of CBSSportsline, he predicted football not being in existence in 30 years because of this very dichotomy.
“The league is trying to move in the right direction, but, at the same time, (coaches) want bigger, stronger and faster year in and year out,” Pollard said. “And that means you’re going to keep getting big hits and concussions and blown-out knees. The only thing I’m waiting for … and, Lord, I hope it doesn’t happen … is a guy dying on the field. We’ve had everything else happen there except for a death. We understand what we signed up for, and it sucks.”
This is just like the tobacco industry back in the day. The companies making billions know the dangers yet the money is too good to address them. So you wait. You wait for the lawsuits, for the smoking gun, for enough guys like Ed Reed to say enough is enough.
Because he believes football can be safe — if played right, if the health of every player, not just quarterbacks, is protected, if proper medical treatment is provided. What he does not believe is they are on the right path.
“When you have the president talking about it,” Reed said, “That’s something.”
And when one of the best players in the game says he plans to tell his son he played so that he doesn’t have to, that says something else entirely. It says that we need to say screw etiquette and follow the president’s lead and talk about the players dying for our enjoyment.