We are now less than three weeks away from this year’s NFL draft, and all of our attention is on the next group of 20-somethings charged with making an impact in the most physically-demanding sports league in the world. The ones who survive the final cut and make it on to the 53-man roster will be rewarded handsomely for their efforts. In fact, this year’s minimum rookie salary in the NFL will be $515,000. Righteous bucks, indeed.
Before they blow their wad on Maybachs and an entourage, let’s take a closer look at that salary. First of all, Don’t forget Uncle Sam. The federal tax hit on gross income over $500,000 is 37%. But wait! That’s not all. Your state has its greedy paw out as well. And FICA. And Medicare. Let’s say you’re a fourth-round pick of the Denver Broncos. Colorado is middle-of-the-road when it comes to state taxes but you’ll still end up paying a total of roughly $194,000 in taxes. But that’s not all. Between your agent (3%), lawyer (1%), and publicist (1%), that’s another $25,750 down the tubes. That leaves you roughly $290,000 in take home pay.
While this still represents a fine starting salary fresh out of college, we still haven’t factored in that big house for mama, a fresh whip for yourself, and someplace to live during the season. It adds up fast. But there’s more bad news. The average NFL career lasts 3.3 years. That’s a grand total of about $960,000. But that’s not all you’ve earned. There’s the fame, the glory, the attention, and the envy of millions of armchair quarterbacks who’d trade places with you in the blink of an eye. But there’s one other thing you’ve probably earned. An early death sentence.
A study released by the Boston University School of Medicine stated that of the 111 brains of players who had spent time in the NFL they have examined, 110 of them show signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). This link, which the NFL repeatedly denied, was finally proven by Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered it when he examined the brain of ex-Steeler center, Hall-of-Famer Mike Webster. Webster suffered from dementia, insomnia, and constant pain at the end of his life, before succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 50. After years of denial, the NFL has finally admitted there is a problem and has recently taken steps with rule changes and education to curb the problem.
Getting the Shield on board is great, but it only addresses part of the problem. The much more difficult issue is CTE has been shown to have developed in players as young as high-schoolers. That means the collective trauma they’ve received early in their careers has already taken its toll in some cases.
Others have taken notice as well. Namely the state legislatures of Illinois, New York, New Jersey, California, and Maryland. All of these states have made attempts to ban tackle football for kids under a certain age. None have been successful…yet. Whether or not you agree with their efforts, you cannot fault their goal of protecting children from a potentially life-threatening condition later in life.
This may be a good time to address what a great many of you are thinking right now. Namely, what does this guy know? I’ll bet he’s some kind of liberal snowflake fairy who doesn’t know the difference between Cover-2 and a Zone Blitz. Au contraire, mon frère. My dad played, I played, and, most recently, my now 21-year-old son was a three-year starter for his high-school football team. I never missed a game, and my wife and I cheered like idiots every week. And even though I didn’t let him play tackle until his seventh-grade year, if I had it to do over again, knowing all the CTE information available today, I would have made a different decision. I wouldn’t have let him play at all.
So, due solely or mainly to football played in our youth, my dad had both knees replaced. For me, I had an MCL tear, broken arm, broken collarbone, and too many bumps, sprains and bruises to count. In addition, besides playing fullback, my main position was Mike linebacker. I played with abandon, and loved nothing more than to hit somebody running at full-speed. I was what they used to call a headhunter. And I paid the price. More “bell ringings” than I can recall, as well as two diagnosed concussions where I lost consciousness.
My son paid his dues as well. Up until high-school, he had been a quarterback. When he moved to high school, there was a fast, mobile quarterback who fit the offense better. The coach told my son he could hold the clipboard or start at OT. At 5’10” 215 pounds, he wasn’t exactly the prototypical O-lineman at a class 5-A suburban football program. He frequently gave up 50 pounds to his man. In spite of this, he received all-district honors his junior and senior year. He also received an ankle injury, leg injury, dislocated shoulder, broken arm, and at least one concussion. And there’s probably more that I’m forgetting. I’ll bet his mom remembers.
At the high school level they did have concussion protocols in place. There was a baseline test they all took at the beginning of the year. They would then have to clear those tests before being allowed back on the field after an injury. All well and good, however, there were two flaws in the system. The first problem was the players were only checked if they were obviously injured, or if they self-reported. Because they didn’t want to “let their teammates down,” there were numerous instances of the kids not saying anything. The second flaw is their was nothing done to PREVENT head trauma. All the protocol and procedures were designed to be implemented AFTER an injury had occurred.
I know the arguments on the other side. Football builds character. Teaches teamwork and responsibility. It makes them tougher. I agree with all three statements. It also teaches you to push yourself. To “break through the wall” of what you thought you could do. But, so do lot of other sports and activities.
I’m also know about the “Heads Up” program that’s been implemented by more than 7000 youth football leagues. It teaches safety first, with an emphasis on proper technique. But as anyone who’s played organized football can tell you, we were ALL taught proper technique. “Head up, aim for the numbers, and drive through the ball carrier.” I had those words drilled into me from the time I was ten. The problem will always be getting kids and teenagers (the same people we don’t trust to remember to take the trash out) to remember and execute what they’ve learned, during the heat o the game. Your natural instinct is ALWAYS to drop your head when contact is coming. It takes years to fully train someone to fight through it. Hell, you even see NFL players dropping their head. Still. To expect our children to keep their head up every time there is contact is not realistic. Nor is it achievable.
Look, I LOVE football. I played it, I watch it, I write about it, and I wager on it. But, I also have to say that I do occasionally get flashbacks to “Rollerball” whenever a player is taken off the field on a stretcher. At times it all feels just tiny bit, uhm, callous. Gladiator-like. I was at a HOME game where the crowd cheered when our own starting quarterback was injured on the field. Is that really who we are now?
I truly believe that most NFL players would knowingly risk their long-term health for a chance at the glory and riches of playing in The League. The problem is, many times, the damage is already done before they get to that point. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t let my son play football. For me, as a parent, the risk versus reward isn’t worth it. As a side note, I asked my son if he wishes he would have picked a different sport. Not only did he say he was glad that he played, he also told me he would let HIS son play someday. I’m anxious to see if he still feels the same way after he holds his own child for the very first time. That moment when you instinctively know you would run through the gates of Hell to protect the life of that tiny human being.
I’m not calling for a ban on youth football. I’m also well aware that it becomes a slippery slope. Kids get injured in tons of other sports. Baseball, soccer, wrestling…and I’ve lost track of the emergency room visits for my daughter, the cheerleader. But I also think there needs to be a limit. My vote would be no tackle until middle school. Give them intensive, months-long training on proper technique. And, one strike and you’re out. The first time a kid drops his head to make a tackle, he’s out for the rest of the game. I know you’re never going to keep your kids safe. Stuff happens. And you do them no favors TRYING to protect them from everything. It will make you crazy and give them an unrealistic idea about what life is going to be like. But with all the information now available, we have to take a few steps to protect them. At least until they’re old enough to have a chance of mastering proper technique. We owe them that much.