One of the Razorbacks’ best players announced this week that he was retiring as a college sophomore. For football fans and the entities that profit from the game, the bigger issue is the number of young people who might never play at all.
Rawleigh Williams had already suffered one neck injury his freshman season, had a successful surgery, and returned to lead the Southeastern Conference in rushing, putting him on the path to a pro career.
Then in the Razorbacks’ final spring practice April 29, he made ordinary contact with a defensive player and fell to the ground, unable to rise. Medical personnel rushed to his side along with Head Coach Bret Bielema and then his distressed mother, Kim, and his sister. A ruptured disc in his neck was surgically replaced and fused in place.
That was enough for Williams, who announced his decision to end his playing career but not to leave the game. In an essay on the Arkansas Razorbacks’ website, he said he could not bear to put his mother and sister through another such episode, adding, “I want to be able to walk.” He’ll keep his scholarship and finish his education in hopes of an office career in football.
We’ve all grown immune to seeing young men carried off a field after a “season-ending injury” that could affect them the rest of their lives. In the worst cases, there’s a long delay as players kneel and the crowd grows silent. Otherwise, the broadcast goes to replay and then commercial, and then play resumes with a replacement player briefly introduced.
It’s the worst part of a very entertaining show. But the reality is that many players who make it to the NFL become broken middle-aged men thanks to a sport that even the Buffalo Bills’ general manager last year acknowledged humans are not supposed to play. Among the health issues are concussion-caused brain ailments such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disorder that can strike relatively early in life. We’ve also learned, thanks to the book “League of Denial,” that the National Football League denied the sport’s link to brain injuries much like the tobacco industry did with smoking and lung cancer.
The ultimate result of the research was a billion dollar settlement requiring the NFL to compensate 20,000 ex-NFL players. The NCAA also agreed to a much smaller settlement for college players.
Yes, every player has made a choice to step on that field. But let’s be honest: Society takes a kid, often from the wrong side of the tracks, and gradually makes the game more rewarding. Through junior high and high school, he plays in front of adoring crowds, leading to a college scholarship to play in front of even larger crowds, and then, if he’s good enough, NFL riches. Warnings about what might happen in 40 years often fall on deaf ears. By the time a young man appreciates the risks, he’s a football player with responsibilities. According to former pro tight end Jordan Cameron, who retired after four concussions in six years, many players don’t actually love the game.
Of course there is another side to the argument. Many players in high school, college and the pros do love the game. Rawleigh Williams does. Young men are going to take risks, prove their manhood, and find outlets for their testosterone-fueled impulses. It’s been said the last words of many a Southern male are, “Hey, watch this!” Isn’t it better if these things happen in an organized activity with rules, a sense of brotherhood, and a clock that ends the activity on time?
It seems few people have boycotted football since “League of Denial” was published, but the game’s long-term and short-term risks must be better appreciated than they were. While young men may see themselves as the next star player, many of their mothers see themselves as potentially the next Kim Williams looking at her son lying prone on the field. How many are discouraging – or forbidding – their sons from ever playing the game? Surely some.
Football increasingly will be something that most people never actually do, even as children, because of the risks and because there are just so many other choices. So would fewer people playing the game lead to fewer people interested in the game? Seems likely, if not undeniable.