As the healthy public discussion about head trauma and the lasting effects of NFL injuries continues following Junior Seau’s death, we’re starting to come full circle and arrive back home at some universal truths.
This afternoon’s reality was served by Osi Umenyiora, the Giants defensive end who tweeted this morning that he could be in a wheelchair when he’s 45 years old. He clarified and added to that comment during an appearance on ESPN’s Outside the Lines:
”Obviously that was an exaggeration on my part or at least I hope so. But there is no question that it is a dangerous sport. A lot of us all know the risks and ramifications of what it is that we are doing and we still chose to do it anyway because of the benefits of it and the lifestyle that it affords us to lead and the fact that we get to bond and go out there and play a team sport and do things that we all dreamed of as a kid.”
“But there is no question as to the dangers of actually playing football and the things that happen and the long-term health risks of playing. You can see that the NFL now has owners who care and we have a Commissioner who cares. And you see them taking steps to try to eradicate or to lessen the impact of some of these head trauma and the dementia that a lot of us are suffering later on in our life.”
“You see them trying to do things to limit that. But there is really not much you are going to be able to do to eradicate that completely unless you eradicate the game of football and that is not going to happen.”
It’s nice that some sober second thought has allowed Umenyiora to reflect back on his tweets from this morning, and more properly articulate his feelings. But when we’re worrying about the future of the game in light of Seau’s death, today’s generation of players aren’t necessarily central to the discussion, which is the first area Umenyiora addressed.
Nope, concern over the future of the game at the grassroots level isn’t directed towards Umenyiora, because he’s a veteran player who’s been injured, recovered from those injuries, and played through injuries. As he notes, he’s fully aware of the risks, and plays for the reward, whether those are literal rewards (his two Super Bowl rings and two visits to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl), or the many, many other benefits of being a professional athlete (the paycheck, the adoring fans, the girls…the girls).
This is about mothers and sons, and the families sitting around pop warner fields on lawn chairs this summer. Umenyiora is certainly correct when he says that no amount of precautionary measures will prevent major injuries. Although that may worry some parents, it should be common knowledge, and it’s not the root of their fears.
The root lies in the cumulative effects of those injuries, and the long-term damage that Umenyiora also noted. Fear is the driver, and worries about the lingering effects of playing football have grown. The ultimate concern for the NFL is that the parents of the next Umenyiora could be so strongly influenced by the events of the past week and extending beyond that to Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and others that they won’t allow their child to grow into his natural talent, and become a star.
That will fade, though, and normalcy will return. Eventually, sheltering children only leads to a life of being hopelessly scared and timid, while others have all the fun. No amount of restrictive rules will eliminate concussions, just like regardless of enhanced car safety and advances in technology, no vehicle will be completely accident proof for your newly-licensed 17-year-old.
Eventually, you just have to hand over the keys.