TELANDER: When watching the NFL starts to hurt
BY RICK TELANDER email@example.com | @ricktelander November 30, 2013 1:10AM
Updated: January 2, 2014 6:24AM
If you’re reading this before noon Sunday, you know the Bears-Vikings game is coming up soon in Minneapolis.
The Bears are 6-5, and this is a big game for them if they hope to contend with the Detroit Lions for first place in the NFC North.
I’ll be at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome with the rest of Team Sun-Times, excited about everything but the noise in that tin can, particularly that damned Vikings horn.
But I’ll also be thinking, as I have for many years, about the physical and mental damage the players will be doing to one another for the pleasure of the fervid NFL audience, of which I’m a part.
Already this season — here in the era of heads-up tackling and no-targeting, whatever those things mean — I have seen numerous players take brain and central-nervous-system hits that I fear will last them a lifetime. The Packers’ excellent tight end Jermichael Finley should never get on the field again, for one. And Bears backup safety Craig Steltz got crushed so hard on a recent kickoff return by the Baltimore Ravens’ Kyle Juszczyk that it seemed quite strange that Steltz, clearly concussed by the blow, was active for the Bears’ next game in St. Louis.
And how about Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back from Michigan State, who was hit so hard by two Ravens defenders Thanksgiving night that his helmet crossed the goal line like a hurled pumpkin, without his head in it? The helmet-to-helmet blow was ugly, but so was Bell’s unprotected skull whiplashing into the turf.
The nuttiest part of the play was that because his helmet came off before the ball crossed the goal line (and Bell was unconscious), he did not get credit for a touchdown. Gray-matter damage for naught.
With all the memory loss, dementia and, yes, suicides of former players — plus the ensuing lawsuits — it’s getting harder and harder to watch elite football and say simply, ‘‘These guys know what they’re getting into.’’
Do they? Can they?
Playing tackle football is a lot like smoking cigarettes. Both are pleasurable and addictive. And there can’t be a person anywhere who doesn’t know that long-term smoking will earn him a good chance at lung cancer, stroke or emphysema.
And yet people smoke. And it feels good. And it’s legal.
But doesn’t watching smokers give you the willies these days? Especially if you don’t smoke?
That’s sort of where football is with me. Not quite. But close. Wish it weren’t so.
◆Having said the above, let’s consider boxing.
This is a sport in which killing at least part of the other guy’s (or gal’s) brain is not an accident of the contest but the goal. Please don’t talk to me about the ‘‘sweet science,’’ about training, tenacity, skill, desire, etc. A crushing blow that scrambles the marbles of one’s foe and drops him (or her) to the canvas like a clay mannequin is a wondrous, desirable thing.
Russian heavyweight Magomed Abdusalamov was punched into a coma by Mike Perez at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 2. Not expected to live, Abdusalamov was recently brought out of the coma by doctors at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan, but he is not a whole man and never will be again.
The amazing thing about that fight, which Perez won? It went 10 rounds and Abdusalamov never was knocked down.
So when you watch boxing and enjoy it — as I often have — you can’t help but feel a little dirty. You may not know the damage that is occurring out there, but it’s happening. One’s viewing is part endorsement, part voyeurism.
Writing in the New York Times, boxing columnist Greg Bishop tried to reconcile his love of the sport with the carnage he had witnessed in his career; indeed, he had been sitting just 10 feet from the ring for the Perez-Abdusalamov bout.
‘‘Violence is not simply a part of boxing,’’ Bishop wrote. ‘‘It is the best part . . . the backbone of the sport.’’
He then gave what I feel is the most succinct description of boxing ever: ‘‘Two people with nowhere to go.’’
That, in the final instant, might best describe a ball carrier and a tackler, too. And it’s possible we aren’t supposed to watch that, either.
◆Early line on my Heisman Trophy vote? Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch.
It’s a dangerous sport, and NIU doesn’t play a hard schedule, but 637 yards rushing in two games?