The February issue of Esquire magazine included a disturbing article, titled “Theater of Pain,” about “the injury issue” in the National Football League. It describes some of professional football’s horrendous injuries to players’ bodies and brains – concussions, busted bones poking through skin and knees bending in the opposite direction they’re supposed to, to name a few.
“For players, injuries are a day-to-day reality, indeed both the central reality of their lives and an alternate reality that turns life into a theater of pain,” reporter Tom Junod wrote. “According to a study conducted by the National Football League, the approximately two thousand players active on the thirty-two NFL teams suffered about forty-five hundred injuries in 2011, for an injury rate of 225 percent.”
Despite that alarming number, Junod interviewed players who “spoke without complaint…They all knew what they signed up for, they said, and they all know that when they get older ‘we’re going to be messed up,’” as Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark told him.
Even more disturbing is the mindset that pervades the NFL, from players to coaches to fans. Players don’t want to be perceived as weak or soft; they know if they’re taken out of the game, another player will get their job. Junod talked to players who didn’t consider their concussions to be injuries, because they didn’t prevent them from playing. He noted that coaches and team doctors, although they might care about players’ health and safety, are ultimately employed by the team. “They are paid to get you on the field… and you are paid to play,” he wrote.
Junod concludes that “the reality of injury” of professional football is “what makes it, legitimately, a blood sport.” He calls today the NFL’s “head-injury era, ushered in by a combination of athleticism unfolding at the edge of human capability, the expanding authority of neuroscience, and the horror stories of middle-aged football heroes descending into depression, dementia, and derangement.” He’s not sanguine that’s going to change any time soon.
“No matter how much attention the issue of injury receives and no matter how many changes the NFL faces – …the rule of the NFL is that you play unless you can’t,” Junod stated. “And if you change that, it’s not the NFL anymore.”
Knowing what we know about the brain, the structure of our joints and the effects of repeated bodily collisions on the field, we are overdue in asking how we can justify a sport that Junod compares to the trauma of war. Do you enjoy professional football? If so, what do you think the NFL should do, if anything, to change its “theater of pain”?