How to make football worth risk

BY Jason Whitlock • May 15, 2012

A linebacker from The Ohio State University chose law school over a chance to play for the Cleveland Browns. If they can remember, Tom Cousineau, Marcus Marek, Chris Spielman, Andy Katzenmoyer, Steve Tovar, Lorenzo Styles, A.J. Hawk and all the other Linebacker U 2.0 immortals are rolling over in their scarlet and gray jerseys.

Over the past 30 years, there are only two jobs more coveted, prestigious, revered and dangerous than NFL middle linebacker: 1. NFL quarterback; 2. Kim Kardashian sex slave.

Andrew Sweat’s decision to eschew the Browns for law school speaks to how swiftly football’s image is changing. America’s national pastime has had a Thanksgiving driveway-like car accident. Junior Seau is Elin Nordegren and the NFL is Tiger Woods.

Tiger is still a force of nature when it comes to drawing viewers to golf. He’s still famous, infamous, attractive, charismatic, exciting and impossible to ignore. He’s also damaged and a shell of his former self on the golf course.

In the aftermath of Seau’s suicide and growing concern over football head injuries, football could soon be a shell of its former self, a sport played almost exclusively by America’s option-less underclass.

Football, as my friend Tony Kornheiser predicted on "Pardon the Interruption," could soon become boxing, the sport that defined American machismo in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, surrendered its last vestige of integrity when Larry Holmes hastened Muhammad Ali’s descent into Parkinson’s disease during a 10-round bludgeoning and became virtually irrelevant when Mike Tyson self-destructed.

Maybe Seau, a sure Hall of Famer and a 20-year veteran, is the NFL’s Muhammad Ali. Seau is certainly making football players reexamine their feeling of invincibility. Sweat, an undrafted free-agent signee by the Browns, decided law school was a better option than risking his health in an attempt to land a roster spot as a likely special-teams kamikaze. Jacob Bell, a nine-year veteran, unexpectedly decided to retire.

“It’s just crazy to see how someone like Junior Seau took his own life over — God knows what he was really struggling and dealing with,” Bell, an offensive guard, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But you have to believe it came from the game of football. I want to get out before the game makes me get out, where I can get out on my own terms, and I can limit the amount of stress and negative impact that the game would leave on me.”

In an ass-kissing, publicity-seeking “letter” to his “dad,” Roger Goodell, Patriots bench-warmer Chad Ochocinco suggested there was no solution to fix football and Goodell would be wise to tell the public the game is nasty, violent and dirty and the public is free to watch something else.

It’s not that easy. Football is an enormous economic force because the NFL and its sponsorship partners have been able to package the league as part of Americana. Boxing was once part of Americana. When Joe Louis whipped Max Schmeling, the Brown Bomber represented white America, too.

Goodell needs to be far more aggressive than rules preventing helmet-to-helmet hits. If he’s not, the hysteria and publicity over football head injuries will entice our elected lawmakers to get involved in fixing football. Football is no more powerful than the tobacco industry, and the lawsuits being filed by former NFL players is reminiscent of smokers rising up against the cigarette companies.

So what can and should be done?

• Kickoffs should be eliminated. It’s probably the most dangerous play in football.

• Reduce the regular season to 14 games and the preseason to two. Yep, that’s a lot of money being sacrificed, and Jerry Jones’ head might explode, but so what? If the NFL is serious about safety, play fewer games. College football should do the same. There’s no reason to play more than 10 regular-season games at any level of amateur football. The media hypocrites who clamor for a college football playoff system have no real concern for player safety.

• Reduce the number of full-contact practices to one per week at all levels of football. Full-contact spring practice should be eliminated from amateur football.

• The NFL should eliminate its offseason volunteer practice program. Football year-round is a disaster, especially for professional players. We don’t know what caused Junior Seau to take his life. I suspect a lot of former professional athletes suffer from depression because it’s extremely difficult for them to adjust to civilian life when they’ve never dabbled in civilian life.

Emotionally, football players might have been better off during the era when they worked “real” jobs during the offseason. It prepared them for life after football. For the typical NFL player, when his career ends unexpectedly, it’s the equivalent of a Wall Street millionaire losing everything in a stock-market crash. Businessmen committed suicide in the aftermath of the 2007 financial collapse.

A 26-year-old former football player isn’t all that prepared for the real world. He’s four years removed from college and four years behind his former college peers on the career ladder. He’s also been spoiled/ruined by years of athletic adulation.

After 20 years in the modern NFL, Junior Seau, even if he severely mismanaged his money, likely had a tidy nest egg, and his future earning potential was good. Hall of Famers earn money as public glad-handers, speakers, autograph-signers and whatnot. But that does not mean Seau had a clue what to do with the rest of his life after his long identity as “football player” was over.

Football can be just like prison. You can become institutionalized. Brooks Hatlen of "Shawshank Redemption" renown hung himself after being paroled. Seau was paroled in 2009. Andrew Sweat made the right call passing on an NFL bid.

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