Football and Faust

If ever I to the moment shall say:
Beautiful moment, do not pass away!
Then you may forge your chains to bind me,
Then I will put my life behind me,
Then let them hear my death-knell toll,
Then from your labors you’ll be free,
The clock may stop, the clock-hands fall,
And time come to an end for me!
––Faust, lines 1698–706.

It’s a story that’s as old as storytelling itself.  Someone wishes for a special life – a life of riches and privilege and a million superlatives.  And sure enough, an entity comes along that can offer that person everything he or she ever dreamed.  It could be one year.  It could be twenty-four years.

There’s one condition, though.  One condition – there’s always “one condition” in stories like these.

All the person must surrender – is their life.

It was so for Heinrich Faust, the protagonist of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play. It was so for Jabez Stone, until Daniel Webster argued for his freedom. It was so for Al Simmons, until he became the demon Spawn.

And so it was for Junior Seau.  And for Dave Duerson.  And for Chris Benoit.  And for Justin Strzelczyk.  And for Bob Probert.  And for Andrew “Test” Martin. And for Derek Boogaard.  The knowledge that they can be at the top of their respective professional sports – while at the same time, they know that the clock is ticking.  Every head-crunching tackle.  Every skull-shaking suplex.  Every time the puck ricochets off the helmet or a fist bounces off a forehead.  Every time the boxing glove finds its target.

With each impact, the timer moves forward – what, a day?  A week?  A year?  Until the time when their life contract is up and their lifespan changes from infinite to finite?

How desperate is it in the sporting world, how macabre and sinister can it be, when there are reports that Junior Seau took the fatal shotgun blast to his chest, rather than in the head – so that, as his final wishes might have dictated, doctors could study his brain and find out if Seau suffered from dementia pugilistica or chronic traumatic encephalopathy? That the Chicago Bears’ Dave Duerson left messages to his family that his final wishes were to have his brain examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy?  And that hockey enforcer Bob Probert also made that request to his wife before he passed away in 2010?

Were they warning everyone – athletes and fans – that there was no way to win this final battle, and that the only solution they could see – the only way to make the pain stop, to make the ringing cease, to stop the memory problems and the neurological damage – was to equate themselves with a rabid dog, to end their life as if they were Old Yeller?

Because I consider him an expert on prizefighting and octagon combat, I asked my friend Kevin Marshall his thoughts on whether professional boxing would ever mandate Olympic-style padded headgear for boxers in championship fights, if it meant a reduction in head trauma.  My thought was that it would change boxing from a “knock their lights out” result to a “show your best defensive moves against getting your lights knocked out” result.  Kevin replied that the only way to truly prevent CTE in prizefighting would be to not fight at all.

And we, as fans in the stands and in the arenas, we just sit and cheer.  “Oh, we can’t take out those monster hits in the NFL, next thing you know we’ll be playing flag football and that won’t be the same.”  “Oh, we can’t take fighting out of hockey, the players will just replace fighting with swinging their hockey sticks at each other.”  “Oh, those wrestlers never get hurt.  It’s all in the script, it looks painful but those guys don’t feel a thing.”  We sit in front of the television and watch a player take a helmet-to-helmet shot, and the player falls down like a felled tree.  It can’t hurt that bad, we muse.  The guy’s wearing a football helmet, it’s got padding in it – he just got his bell rung.  Shake the cobwebs out, get back in the huddle, come on, it’s second down and six yards to go.

That’s a big steaming pile and we all know it.  And there’s nothing we can do about it.  What’s the option?  Players are currently suspended for intentionally hurting someone – ask the New Orleans Saints about it.  Ask James Harrison about it.  Ask Raffi Torres about it.

Maybe, some Pollyannas might emote, we should get rid of these sports completely.

No, that’s not the answer either.  We need to know – we need to understand – we need to learn.  Not “learn” as in “learn how to cripple someone.”  “Learn” as in “how to keep the sport exciting while at the same time ensuring that its competitors die of old age and not .44-caliber lead poisoning.”  We can learn more about concussion symptoms and make sure players don’t return to the game UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES until they’re medically cleared by an independent specialist, not a team doctor who holds up four fingers and says to the player, “How many fingers am I holding up?”

The fact that today’s athletes feel that the only way they can save the sports for which they gave their career – is to give their life, so that others may learn from the mistakes of the past – is both noble and heartbreaking.  Athletes should be preparing for retirement.  They should be preparing their future investments.  They should be preparing their tee times.

These men shouldn’t be looking for the best pathologist for the autopsy on a damaged and trauma-trampled brain.

Well, that’s Philosophy I’ve read,
And Law and Medicine, and I fear
Theology, too, from A to Z;
Hard studies all, that have cost me dear.
And so I sit, poor silly man
No wiser now than when I began.

––Faust, lines 354–59.