By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — On Monday, Jets rookie Jamal Adams was showered with applause at a fan forum event when he said the “perfect place to die” would be on a football field. On the same day, veteran Jets cornerback Morris Claiborne said that even if doctors warned him that he was concussed so badly that he could lose his life, he too would be willing to die on the football field.
“I gotta go play,” Claiborne insisted. “I gotta go play.”
Claiborne was asked what his 7-year-old son would say if he had to watch his father die while playing football.
“He would say daddy died doing what he loved to do,” Claiborne said. “My daddy was that guy. He did what he wanted to do.”
Despite what some people might say — and despite those folks applauding Adams — this is chilling.
We’re obviously dealing with an extreme hypothetical. Only one NFL player has died during a game, and that was due to a heart attack. However, roughly a dozen high school football players die every year, and from 1990-2010, 62 kids died due to brain injuries suffered while playing football. You can read some devastating details about these kids here.
Of course, upon seeing the comments from Jets players, many football fans were quick to point out that the players now more than ever know the risks they are taking on when they sign up to play football. In the wake of last week’s CTE story making the rounds in the news, football players are no longer in the dark. “They get paid a lot of money, and you can die all sorts of different ways, so I don’t have to be concerned about them” was a popular response on social media on Monday.
For now, we’ll put aside the fact that the earning period for these players is remarkably short — the average career length for an NFL player is less than three years, and has been getting shorter in recent years — and we’ll instead focus on the larger point.
While some fortunate, extraordinarily gifted football players do make a few million dollars, the vast majority of young men who strap on a helmet don’t ever make any money from the game. From the 1 million kids playing high school football, to the roughly 75,000 young men playing college football, to the select few (under 250 players) who get drafted by NFL teams, to the dozens of undrafted free agents, life in football is not the one depicted in “Any Given Sunday” or “Ballers.” First-year players make $1,000 per week in training camp; veterans make $1,800. If they tear their knee ligaments or get knocked unconscious or suffer any other injury, they’re sent packing. Thanks for being a body.
If they’re lucky enough to scrap their way onto a practice squad, they’ll make roughly $7,000 per week. While an annual salary of $117,000 is nice, it’s important to remember the average career length. And $300,000 is not exactly enough money to set anyone up for life.
And that’s only in the pros. College athletes may get compensated in the form of free tuition, but as soon as their bodies no longer serve the purpose of making money for the university and the head coach and the athletic director and the conference commissioner and the television executives, they are cast aside. What these young men, trained for nothing else but football, do after that is their own problem. They have served their purpose.
All the while, NFL owners are making billions from these players’ sweat and blood. Bill-i-ons. Year after year. Millions and billions of dollars.
And for as long as there are brainwashed young athletes who think dying on a football field is OK, these owners will continue to make billions.
That’s where society needs to step in.
While football still remains a few steps shy of being a blood sport, the CTE findings do not look good. Dave Duerson and Junior Seau shooting themselves in the chest in order to preserve their brains doesn’t look good. Andre Waters and Terry Long committing suicide does not look good. A disoriented Brian Price diving headfirst through a glass door while being questioned by police does not look good. Nick Buoniconti feeling so lost that he’s forgotten how to hang up a telephone does not look good. Justin Strzelczyk driving 90 mph the wrong way on the highway does not look good. The NFL pulling out of a partnership with the National Institutes of Health for a study on concussions following congress filing a report on the NFL improperly influencing the study does not look good.
The evidence of football as a catastrophic health experience for many, many men continues to mount. Yet Roger Goodell, seated next to Adams on Monday, confidently declared football players live longer than the average human.
That’s the same Goodell who runs the league that has fought tooth and nail to keep money in owners’ pockets and not with some former players who desperately need it. The league was built on the backs of these players, and in times of great need, the league has turned its back on them.
So, even though Roger can clearly read and regurgitate a headline, his comments come across as simply disturbing.
And just as clearly, as humans, there must be a responsibility to ensure that a select group of privileged, wealthy owners are not allowed to profit by the billions off the backs of underpaid young men who lack a certain perspective and don’t realize how little they matter to these owners and how quickly they can be cut.
In Goodell’s case, for as long as he’s collecting an annual salary between $30 million and $40 million, he’ll welcome players with Adams’ attitude into the league every single year.
And it’s not just at the professional level. Twenty college football coaches made more than $4 million in 2016; Jim Harbaugh made $9 million. More than a dozen big-time college athletic directors are pulling in close to or more than $1 million annually. The average pay for a commissioner in the power-five conferences is $2.5 million. Even if you consider a scholarship to count as compensation, there’s clearly a great disparity between the players who actually make the game and those who simply profit off the players’ efforts.
And for as long as there are kids willing to die on football fields, all of those men will continue to build enormous bank accounts.
As a society, we should at the very least be interested in shifting the balance of power toward the actual players.
That’s just basic humanity, requiring a small shred of human compassion. Hoping such a thing can be applied to the world’s most profitable sports league should not be considered unreasonable. It’s just a matter of some governing force actually forcing the NFL to be better. So far, that force has not been consistently applied. But the more often that stories like last week’s CTE study come out, the more likely we might actually see some changes forced upon the league.
Let’s hope nobody dies on the field before then.