There was this video a few weeks ago in which Antonio Smith was rushing Richie Incognito, tore off Incognito's helmet, and swung the helmet right into Incognito's face. You probably saw it. I know I shouldn't have loved this play, but it was so great. It came in the middle of August, giving us one loud reminder that football was on its way back. And, in case we'd forgotten, the Zapruder footage of The Helmet Attack was our reminder that football is a sport full of people who are built like science fiction characters, many of whom would be considered certifiably insane in any other workplace in America. Just look at the photo of Antonio Smith up there.
Football is amazing.
The best part: As crazy as it may seem to swing a football helmet at someone's face — Smith was suspended for two preseason games and the Texans' Week 1 game, which will cost him about $400,000 — Incognito is one of the dirtiest players in the entire league, so rest assured, he almost certainly earned the helmet attack.
It's all a nice snapshot of what football actually is. The NFL tries to sell this sanitized version of the game as an American tradition dominated by 10 or 15 famous quarterbacks and a handful of mastermind coaches, but the reality of how this game operates on every play, every week, is a hundred times crazier.
Easy example: Google "NFL bottom of the pile" and you'll find an endless collection of articles in which players detail the war crimes that happen anytime there's a pileup or loose ball on a football field. Eye-gouging, choking, biting, nothing is off limits. When a 2010 Chiefs player was accused of punching someone in the crotch for two consecutive weeks, the same Smith from above shrugged it off when reporters asked him about it.
"If you don’t guard yourself," Smith said, "that’s what happens out there. It’s football, an aggressive game. People lose their temper; people fight out there. It’s part of the game."
It is part of the game. And I love it. Football is so unhinged and ridiculous that you can't help but admire the sheer chaos of it all, not to mention the select breed of humans who willingly do this every week. Throw in freak-of-nature skill players and quarterbacks who exist alongside guys like Smith and Incognitio, along with parity that makes the NFL pretty much impossible to predict on a weekly basis, and of course football is the most popular sport in America. It makes sense.
Of course, it's also pretty reprehensible to love this stuff. Right? Last night a friend text messaged me, "This kid on Vandy just got hit so hard he's barfing on the field."
Woooooooooo! America's Game!
You'd think we could have had at least a few weeks to get excited about football without feeling guilty, but nope! Bill Barnwell parsed the particulars of how the former players suing the NFL got thoroughly screwed with the $765 million settlement that was announced this week, but even more depressing than the big picture or just how big of a win this was for the NFL was the note that families of players who have committed suicide will receive a special seven-figure payout as part of the settlement.
God. The NFL is so completely screwed up.
You know this. It's impossible for anyone to not know this.
So of course, on the first day real football came back to our lives with the return of the college game, we got a reminder that this sport is kind of awful sometimes. It was almost too perfect. Whether it's college stars getting screwed now, or former NFL players walking around later in a concussed haze and slowly going insane, football at the highest levels is hard to love if you follow it every day.
A combination of better science and new media has made it impossible to avoid the stories of obscure 50-year-old NFL players sliding into dementia and killing themselves, of college stars getting screwed in 10 different ways, of corporate partners (ahem) possibly shrinking away from covering these issues, and everything else that comes with this bizarre hypocrisy dance we're doing now.
This is all a pretty recent development, too. To put it in perspective, think about Any Given Sunday and Playmakers. When the movie hit theaters and that show was on ESPN, everyone mostly laughed at them both.
We could debate the artistic merits of these projects — #BillBellamy4Life, #OmarGoodingAllDay — but that's a different conversation. Either way, both were considered so incredibly over the top in the way they depicted the NFL that nobody took either one seriously. Now? I don't remember the particulars of Playmakers, but Any Given Sunday is pretty much a documentary.
You have players on hard drugs … aggressively corrupt team doctors … shady relocation subplots … aging linebackers who are dizzy from concussions but play anyway. Nothing in that movie seems like a stretch now. I don't think anyone's ever lost an eyeball on the field, but there's still plenty of time for us to cross that off the bucket list of horrors.
Also, things that weren't in Any Given Sunday or Playmakers: A tight end who also turns out to be an alleged serial killer, a linebacker who murders his girlfriend and then shoots himself in the head in front of his head coach, and, of course, the $10 billion–a-year league that willfully ignores the fundamental aspects of this sport's culture that make these problems inevitable, but will fine the shit out of any player wearing mismatched socks.
If football has always been every bit as corrupt and reprehensible as it is now — it was probably worse, really — we now know exactly what's going on, and it feels like we're all a lot more complicit. We can use Google to see what happens on the bottom of the pile. We watch Any Given Sunday and nod our heads. We see players get screwed in the NFL lockout and then see ex-players get screwed in litigation. We know the most profitable professional sport in America is also the sport in which players are most underpaid and likely to spend the bulk of their retirement hobbling around in pain. When you couple all that with the NFL's staggering arrogance and unlimited popularity, you gotta think that at some point it'll be too much to handle.
Fans don’t care at this point, obviously. I don't blame anyone who doesn't. Normal people with jobs and families don’t spend all day checking Twitter or reading massive Outside the Lines investigations. Even among people who follow this stuff every day and understand exactly what's wrong here … We all love things that aren't totally healthy.
But you can't follow football in 2013 without wondering whether it all ends eventually, how it happens, and how much time we have before we hit that point. Maybe never?
But no, not never. Whether it's something like a superstar getting paralyzed that shakes us out of the addiction, a death on the field, or something as simple as scientists developing a test for CTE in active players, the NFL won't be bulletproof forever. (If we find out 40 percent of the NFL suffers from CTE while they're playing, how does anyone keep obsessing over fantasy football? How do advertisers and broadcast partners cosign this stuff?)
There will always be crackpot concussion truthers who claim this is all politically correct nonsense (NFL doctors, mostly), but if it feels like we're decades away from the public opinion shifting, just look at the NCAA. Two years ago there was a massive, mediawide witch hunt to find out whether Cam Newton took money to play at Auburn. The year before that there was the USC investigation, during which hundreds of college football columnists demanded Southern Cal be stripped of its national title and Reggie Bush return his Heisman Trophy because he accepted benefits from an agent.
Now? We all agree it's bullshit when Johnny Manziel is getting harassed about signing autographs, everyone thinks Jadeveon Clowney should be getting paid, and the columnist citing NCAA rules and demanding that Bush forfeit his Heisman has turned into the columnist lashing out at NCAA administrators, demanding they apologize to Chris Webber. That's not a shot at anyone covering college sports or the NFL, but eventually there's a tipping point, and people's perspectives change. In the media, among fans, and everywhere in between. It can happen in three years.
I love Ed Reed. He's been making plays about five years longer than seems possible, and his patchy beard and gray hair make him look like some sort of hobo football wizard … He's the greatest. On the field, he's one of the only guys who combines the superhuman toughness you see in crazy linemen with the swagger you get from the greatest skill players. Everything I've ever loved about football is Ed Reed, basically.
He grew up in a town of 6,500 people. His dad worked 12-hour shifts in a shipyard, his mom worked at Walmart, and even though he was smart, sports were the only thing that ever kept him interested in school. And because he played football, both his parents and his kids are set for life.
At Super Bowl media day last year — before he played with a torn muscle in his hip and still picked off a pass, because of course he did — someone asked him about concussions, and he said, "I feel effects from it. Some days, I wake up and I'm like, 'Where did my memory go?'"
"But I signed up for it," he added in the next breath.
Then someone asked whether Junior Seau had signed up for it, too.
"Did he sign up for it? Yeah, he signed up for it. Junior gave everything he had to football. I'm sure he's looking down and has no regrets."
This year, despite all the injuries, all the money he's already made, the concussion consequences that can only get worse, and despite how perfect it would've been to retire as a Raven after last season, Reed decided to keep playing and signed with the Texans.
It's really easy to sit back and hate the NFL as a corporate enterprise that treats nearly all of its players as disposable in the moment and then ignores their pain once they move on. The league is the easiest possible target for anyone who's paying attention. There's really no gray area anymore. Likewise, it's just as easy to hate NFL coverage that somehow occupies 8,000 hours of television every day during the regular season, yet still conveniently ignores everything that's awful and toxic about this inescapable league.
But most of the problems aren't even the fault of the NFL, or the media. The NFL could take better care of players and be less openly callous, the media could talk about concussions every single day, but the problem is the sport itself. Everything that makes football insane and addictive and unique also creates a sport that possibly ruins lives, making us all uneasy about the whole thing. It's not the NFL. It's football.
Then there are guys like Reed. Football may not have "saved" his life, but it definitely made his life, and, regardless of the consequences, he has no regrets.
Reed is probably much closer to the rule than an exception. Go back and read Curtis Martin's Hall of Fame speech from last year. He talks about playing through pain, ignoring dizziness, stumbling back to the wrong huddle one day … and also talks about how football saved his life and made him a better man. Or look at someone like Tyrann Mathieu, and ask whether he would better or worse off without football in his life this year. This is where you see a gray area. Maybe we're complicit in all this, but maybe not. I have no idea whether these guys should play football, but I'm not going to be the paternalistic dipshit who says we need to boycott football to save Ed Reed from himself.
There are hundreds of others like Reed who aren't Roger Goodell or the owners raking in billions. They're just the ones who understand this sport and the price that comes with it more than we ever will, still loving it more than most of us have ever loved anything. There is a real gray area, if you're looking for ways to make yourself feel better.
But these problems aren't going away. Like Reed's memory loss, there's a good chance it all only gets worse as the years pass. It's pretty awful to think about.
I have no idea where we'll be with all this in three years, or five years, or 10, but for now we're stuck in this weird space between knowing what's wrong and knowing what we're supposed to do. I'm going to write about football almost every day for the next few months, tell stupid jokes about the Jets, do my fantasy draft next Tuesday, watch every Sunday, e-mail friends with Vines of Patrick Willis pressing pause on Brad Smith's entire life, and generally do my best to ignore all the obvious problems mentioned above, waiting for things to get bad enough to where I have no choice but to just quit this stupid sport entirely. If that seems cowardly and hypocritical and irresponsible, well, that's sort of where we all are now.
Right? Everyone still loves football.
Right now I love football just enough to not hate it.