Pros, Injured Or Not, Know Risks Of Their Profession

By Mike Downey
Updated: June 14, 2007

CHICAGO — It is no longer enough that you praise professional football players. Now you are being asked to pity them. You paid for the tickets that paid for their salaries. You were willing to revel in their successes as well as to tolerate their failures, their excesses and their sins. Now you are being asked to extend your public sympathy and support to out-of-work entertainers who played with a ball for your amusement. You are expected to wring your hands over the ordeal of poor professional athletes who got banged up on the job. Show me a truck driver, a teacher, a firefighter, a flight attendant, a clerk, a cook, a health-care worker and I will show you a person who performed a public service, a person who did more for the public’s well-being than run and play catch, a person who did more for a lot less. No one is obligated to play football for money. You don’t go into pro football because you were unable to find a better job. You go into it because it is lucrative and a pleasurable activity and you are exceptionally good at it, the same way that you would go into singing or dancing. If you play football for money, chances are you had most or all of your education paid for by somebody other than your own kin. You were subsidized for multiple years and afforded a chance to qualify for a secondary occupation that could carry you and your family through the remaining 30 to 50 years of your adult life beyond a locker room. If you play football for money, you understand all the risks. You are fully aware from your first day at work that physical deterioration will be yours for today, for tomorrow and for the rest of your natural-born life. You are free to spend some of your income on an insurance policy to protect yourself against all future expense and hardship. If you play football for money, you know for a fact that you cannot expect to do so beyond your 40th birthday. There is a pretty fair chance that you will not be equipped or entitled to do so past your 30th. If you found yourself injured on the job, you merely would be in the 99 to 100 percent bracket of a profession that requires one of two things of every participant: Hit or be hit. It is impossible to make a career of football without knowing that your limbs are going to be broken or bent. It is a given that at some point in your professional life, a superior is going to ask you to endanger your health and welfare for the sake of your team. It is your prerogative to say no. Anybody who sacrificed his body for the purpose of playing in a game is to be commended for his bravery but certainly not for his common sense. He did so of his own free will. If he faced danger, well, so did a man or woman who ran into a burning home with a hose or taught school in a mean part of town. The plight of professional football veterans is being presented to the public as if they were discussing bedridden military survivors at Walter Reed. A dispute between a workmen’s union and a number of its former laborers is being elevated by means of a public forum into a crisis that concerns us all. If onetime professional athletes care to become private benefactors and raise funds for peers in dire straits, fine, let them. People do tend to take care of their own kind. How this suddenly became a debate for the masses, however, is beyond comprehension. Each new day in this recent discussion of the NFL Players Association and its infighting brings a new public outcry, one either calling for the chastisement of these poor souls’ guild representation or insinuating that the needy are overstating their needs. So many worldwide causes exist that are more deserving of our attention than his one. The disabilities and retirement benefits of men who played football … these are the matters that warrant citizens’ concern? We need to educate the populace further on the unhealthful hazards of sports? Workers get hurt every day in every way. Some have companies that look out for them. Some pay dues to unions and count on being looked after when the time comes. Football players traditionally have fallen into both these classifications, with, as with most of the American work force, mixed results. The stories of NFL alumni such as that of 35-year-old Brian DeMarco are being told and retold as if there were something the rest of us could do about it. These predicaments should be of no more importance to you than those of a boxer whose memory is foggy or a runner whose shins are shot. It is their worry, not yours. No one forced them to box or run. Football players live the rest of their lives with surgical scars and protracted pain. It has been this way since God invented grass and cows to make leather. If a former football laborer has a bone to pick with his erstwhile employer or union, that is a personal matter and not your worry. Possibly the NFL’s players union will augment health benefits to its brethren. Possibly it won’t. Beyond these two sides of the football, why should anyone else care?