NEW ORLEANS – Ed Reed said it. So did Donte Whitner, and Corey Graham. Every player in the NFL has probably uttered the phrase, which has become the standard replay when anyone asks about head injuries and football’s essentially violent nature.
“It’s the game we signed up for,” said Graham, the Buffalo native and Ravens cornerback.
Yes, players know from a young age that football hurts, that it’s a game of contact and bone-rattling collision.
The current NFL players, who have ridden the sport to unimagined wealth and fame, are hardly the most objective voices on long-term health issues.
Of course, no one signs up for repeat concussions, brain damage, depression or suicide. No one volunteers for injuries that might cripple you at a young age and devastate your wife and kids. The women don’t sign up to be the caretakers for damaged gridiron heroes.
What people are signing for, in increasing numbers, is lawsuits claiming the NFL did not do enough to protect its players from head injuries. The Associated Press recently reported that more than 3,800 players have sued the league over concussions in recent years.
The family of Junior Seau, who shot himself to death last May, recently filed a suit against the NFL, contending that the league didn’t do enough to educate its players and concealed evidence about the dangers of repeated brain injuries.
So not everyone agrees that football players know what they’re getting into. And when the most powerful man in the world has reservations about football’s violent nature, you know there’s a problem.
“I’m a big football fan,” President Obama said in the current issue of The New Republic. “But I have to tell you, if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”
Obama called it a question of “conscience” and said fans “have to wrestle with the fact” that football needs to reduce some of the violence, even if it takes some of the excitement out of the game.
Reed was one of the few NFL players to agree with the president – up to a point. Reed said the NFL needs to improve the overall medical program and do more for the health of the players.
“I definitely agree with the president,” Reed said Tuesday during the annual Super Bowl media day in the Superdome. “I’m not going to push this on my son. If he chooses to be a football player, so be it. All I can say is, ‘Son, I played so you don’t have to.’ ”
“We have to protect ourselves,” he said. “But football has been this way for ages. It’s always been a contact sport. It’s going to be a violent sport. You’re going to have repercussions from that.
“But every player who ever played this game, and will play it, they signed up for it. We signed up for it. We know what can happen. God forbid it happen to anyone, but that’s the life we choose to live.”
What about Junior Seau, I asked. Did he sign up for what happened to him?
“Yeah,” Reed said, “he signed up to play football. We all signed up to play football. Do you want it to happen? No. When I was on the golf course, did I want to hear that Junior Seau died? No. I grew up watching him play. That was a sad day, man, a sad day.
“I feel effects from it,” Reed said. “Sometimes I wake up and it’s ‘Where did my memory go?’ But I signed up for it. Once that whistle blows and you’re between those lines, it’s time to play ball. You’re going to play it the the way you know how. Junior gave everything to football, and I’m sure he’s looking down with no regrets.”
Whitner, the former Bills safety who plays for the Niners, agrees that football needs to be safer.
Whitner, a fearsome hitter, said it’s a matter of teaching and coaching proper tackling tecnnique.
“I know a lot of parents out there are really nervous about their kids playing football,” Whitner said. “I would be, too. I have a 6-year-old son. He wants to play football, which I’ll allow him to do. But it has to start at the youth level, teaching kids how to tackle. Even in the NFL, we’ve gotten away from fundamentals, where you keep your head up and lower your base. There’s a right way to do it.”
There’s a general ambivalence among the NFL players, who love the sport but have to reconcile the physical risks involved and the prospect of younger generations turning away. Some of them are still in denial.
“Everybody has an opinion,” said Niners defensive end Justin Smith, “and the president can say whatever he wants to say. But this game teaches young kids about discipline, responsibility, toughness, work ethic. There’s all types of occupations that are just as hazardous or more hazardous. They just don’t have the spotlight. I would be all for my kids playing football. I don’t really see the harm in it.”
Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard, a vicious hitter, sees the opposite. He said there’s not much the league can do about violent hits with the players becoming more finely tuned machines of mayhem. He said the NFL could be out of existence 30 years from now because of it.
“The league is trying to move in the right direction,” Pollard said, “but the collisions and everything will stay the same, and they’re going to get bigger. Year in and year out, guys are getting bigger, stronger, faster and quicker. You’ve got guys 325, 350 pounds running downfield to get you. It’s tough to eliminate that from this game.
“The only thing I’m waiting for — and Lord, I hope it doesn’t happen — is a guy dying on the field,” Pollard said. “We’ve had everything else happen except for a death. We understand what we signed up for, and it sucks.”