One week after NFL legend Junior Seau took his own life, the first significant and tangible ripple has been felt from that explosive event: An NFL player has retired at least partially due to concerns regarding the risks of head trauma.
Bengals guard Jacob Bell announced this week he’s walking away from the game at the age of 31, and when he explained his decision to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Seau’s name was uttered.
“It’s just crazy to see how someone like Junior Seau took his own life over — God knows what he was really struggling and dealing with. But you have to believe it came from the game of football. I want to get out before the game makes me get out, where I can get out on my own terms, and I can limit the amount of stress and negative impact that the game would leave on me.”
I don’t necessarily expect Bell to become a poster boy for a mass movement, because the money and the fame and everything that goes with it is too hard for most of these guys to walk away from.
We’ve been reminded time and again this week that everyone who steps foot on the field is choosing to do so and that the risks are no longer foreign or concealed. But I’d still argue that there really isn’t much of a choice for players whom, without football, wouldn’t have been able to make even a fraction of the money they make in the NFL and wouldn’t have had a chance to get a post-secondary education. I’m sure a lot of these players never got to choose whether they’d play football as kids, and the pressure to continue at something that could grant you a free education and a seven-figure salary is likely immense.
Regardless, some guys might be coming to the realization that you can’t put a price on your health. Bell admitted that he might not have been prepared to retire when he was making several million dollars per year in St. Louis, but that his current $825,000 salary didn’t justify the risk.
This week, possibly in response to the heightened sense of panic among players, fans and the media, the league has pushed a report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that claims pro football players live longer than non-pro football players. But this is as much about quality of life as it is quantity of life, and said report doesn’t reference the headaches, the memory loss, the dizziness, the sensitivity to light and the depression that doesn’t lead to suicide but still darkens lives. And as we see more anecdotal evidence that former players are living in pain, I’d like to believe that the majority of current and future players (and their parents) won’t be fooled by such propaganda.
If they aren’t, some might choose to follow in Bell’s footsteps. And the resultant watered down product could jeopardize the NFL’s spot atop the North American professional sports totem pole.