A small percentage of NFL players, however, do leave the game even when they’re at the top of it. After playing running back for 10 seasons for the New York Giants, Tiki Barber retired in 2006 at age 31.
Despite finishing fourth in the league with 1,662 yards, Barber walked away because “it was my long-term health I was thinking about,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “It really wasn’t in the vein of mental health because of concussions and of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and all that stuff that’s starting to come out so much now. I simply wanted to be able to walk and play with my kids.
“But as I’ve gotten a little bit more knowledge about the concussion issue that’s becoming an epidemic, it makes me worry, as a former player, ‘Is that going to happen to me in 10 years?’ But also, for me, it verifies why I walked away. . . . Given the violent nature of my position, I’m sure these things would have affected me.”
Seau committed suicide in a similar manner to that of longtime Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson, who suffered from CTE and shot himself in the chest just last year. Before he picked up a gun and aimed it at his heart, Duerson texted his family, asking that his brain be given to medical researchers studying CTE.
To be sure, no one forced Seau and Duerson to become NFL players. While the long-term hazards were not as evident as they are now, players have long been aware of the game’s violence, and may have even reveled in elements of it. They received wallet-stuffing paydays for their efforts and enjoyed lap-of-luxury lifestyles most people experience only in their dreams.
But does that absolve those of us screaming from the bleachers? To be more painfully specific, does it absolve me, who has spent much of my career not only watching NFL games, but profiting from them?
My work as a beat reporter, and now as a columnist, helps glorify the thrill of a violent sport, and perpetuates the economic engine that fuels it. I still can’t shake the unsettling feeling that it’s wrong for me to contribute to something I know inflicts so much pain on others, some of whom I count among my friends.
For his part, Barber believes fans’ responsibility extends only to their own families.
“They should inform their children about the dangers of the game. That part is on them,” he said. “But that’s it. I don’t think the downstream effect of what happens to players is on them.
“It’s a form of entertainment. We love the game because of the brutal nature of it and the excitement. That’s why fans watch.”
I’ll continue to watch as well. But that doesn’t mean I’ll feel good about it. Or that I should.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.