Shortly after former NFL linebacker Junior Seau's tragic suicide in May, I published a post here regarding concussions and the NFL. In that post, I argued that most NFL players are well aware of the risks of football (not just concussions, but of injuries of all types), but that they choose to play anyway because the rewards are so large.
My argument was lent serious credence over the weekend by former running back (and one-time Patriot) Curtis Martin, who may have said more than he realized during his Hall of Fame induction speech in Canton (which, incidentally, was incredible in its candor and is definitely worth watching in its entirety). In discussing his mentor, Bill Parcells, Martin cited this line from the legendary coach:
This week's QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"I've always believed one thing... You should never come out of the huddle, because you never know who's going in the huddle."
- Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells, via Curtis Martin
Martin went on to describe his takeaway from Parcells' message—in the NFL, you're always replaceable. There's always some rookie somewhere who's right on your heels, itching for the opportunity to take your job (Drew Bledsoe, meet Tom Brady). Martin later admitted that nearly every year in training camp there was someone on the Jets roster who had more ability than him, but that he kept his job simply by "out-working everyone".
With all due respect to Martin's legendary work ethic, it's probably not the only reason he kept his job—a consistent willingness to shake off injuries and even concussions couldn't have hurt his case. Indeed, Martin would follow up his Parcells story by recounting a tale of having been knocked silly during one game, leaving him so dazed that he ended up inadvertently wandering into the Oakland Raiders' defensive huddle.
I wouldn't be surprised if Martin was back on the field later in that same game against the Raiders, not to mention the next week and the week after that. In fact, given his incredible durability in his career (he missed only 8 regular season games in his 11-year career, 4 of which were in his final season), I'd be almost certain that was the case.
The uncomfortable truth is that if he hadn't found a way to get back on the field, somebody else would have, and the fear of being replaced is never far from a professional athlete's mind. It's never easy to make the decision to step aside and take a few plays off, especially when in the heat of the battle. And yet, despite all of this, and knowing all of the risks inherent in football, Martin still says that he would let his own children play football, because he believes that the risks are worth the potential rewards (be they tangible or intangible).
Honestly, I find Martin's honesty in this regard to be refreshing. We all engage in behavior in our lives that is "risky", but we do it because we happen to assess the situation as "worth it", whatever the potential rewards from the situation may be. So we smoke, we drink, we eat red meat, we play the lottery, we invest in the stock market, we buy houses in Las Vegas in 2005 with interest-only mortgages, whatever. The point is, we're all adults here, and as such we're entitled to make our own decisions about which risks are and are not acceptable in our lives.
I'm fine with all of this, right up until the time that those same people try to blame others when the risks inherent in their actions blow up in their faces. Sure, the bank ripped you off, but it's your fault for not reading and understanding your mortgage documents. Yes, you have a serious brain injury, but it's your fault for rushing back onto the field when you couldn't actually see straight.
I sympathize with those players who played back before there was a full appreciation of the seriousness of brain injuries (concussions), and I certainly don't mean to be callous with respect to players like Seau and Dave Duerson, whose deaths were tragic by any definition. But we're seeing more and more athletes admitting that they know (and knew) the risks of playing through injuries, and decided that the risk of not playing was in fact greater than the risk of continuing to play. That's life in the NFL, and we fans know it just as well as the players do. As long as there's another rookie willing to step out on that field, we'll keep seeing veterans who are willing to sacrifice their health in order to keep their jobs. That's just football.