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Football Players are not Disposable Assets

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Jahleel Addae’s injury last night was a wake-up call. For NFL fans, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to love a game which shows so little concern for the players which make it all possible.

Doug Pensinger

I didn’t notice the plays as they happened. It was early in the 4th Quarter, after I was three beers in and screaming at the TV when the referees hosed Eric Weddle on a goal line interception. That's when I saw the second hit which left Chargers’ SS Jahleel Addae seriously impaired on Twitter.  I re-watched the play a few times, mostly because I wanted to be sure what I was seeing. Yes, I understand that Addae was diagnosed with stingers and not concussions.

My interest in the outcome of the game dissipated after viewing the play. I felt dirty. I felt dirty wearing a San Diego Chargers jersey. I felt dirty continuing to watch the game. I felt dirty thinking about how I’m going to get smoked in Fantasy Football again this week because I can’t field healthy lineups. I felt dirty thinking about the "Next Man Up" mantra, and everything it implies.

I thought back to Kris Dielman, and the PBS special I watched about how the NFL handled the concussion issue. I thought about how Mike Shanahan allowed Robert Griffin III back onto the field of a playoff game. I remembered Kevin Mawae’s hit on Shawne Merriman – a hit which essentially destroyed a potential Hall-of-Fame career.

For the first time ever, I seriously considered quitting football completely. For one reason above all others – football players are disposable assets.

They are disposable assets to the team they play for, they are disposable assets to players on other teams, they are disposable assets upon which tremendous amounts of wealth are generated for very small groups of people, and they are disposable assets to fans, unless they produce winning teams and huge stats for what’s essentially a computer game.

I hate all of this – I was raised in a football loving family, and I hate how the NFL, its teams, owners, some of its players, and many of its fans have come to view the players which make it possible as disposable.

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I’ve been watching football since I was old enough to walk.

Some of earliest memories are going with my grandparents to Charger games at San Diego Stadium. My grandfather was an elected official, and we sat in the press box reserved for San Diego County officials. I mostly remember the awesome cheese squares and cherry tomatoes in the press box, and the Chargers helmet car which used to drive around the field after successful field goals. I also remember watching Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, Kellen Winslow and company do incredible things on the football field.

My family and I have spent a lot of time watching the Chargers. We were there when Alex Spanos got booed at halftime before Fouts’ number was retired in 1988. We were there when Marion Butts broke a 50 yard TD run in the rain against Kansas City in 1993. Sadly, my grandfather did not live to see the Chargers 1994 season, but my grandmother, mother and I were there when Pete Stoyanovich missed a game winning FG and the Chargers beat the Dolphins in the playoffs – still my single favorite football memory.

I was there for Ryan Leaf’s first NFL start – a win against the Buffalo Bills. I was there for the 2005 playoff loss against the Jets. My wife and I were there for the game where LaDainian Tomlinson set the single-season TD record, and the 2007 playoff loss to the Patriots. Lastly, we were there for the 2013 season finale against Kansas City.

I say all of this not to establish any kind of "fan competition," rather I just want to illustrate how football in general (and the Chargers in particular) is an important strand running through my life, and how intertwined it is with so many of the best moments I’ve had with my family and friends.

I also say this because I want to illustrate the power of memory, of the mind to do incredible things when it’s operating at peak capacity. Conversely, I want to also talk about how god damn scary it really is when the mind (or any other part of your body, for that matter) is not working at peak capacity.

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I’ve only had one concussion in my life, and it was the single scariest medical problem I’d faced until I had Appendicitis a few years ago.

I was in 7th Grade, which would make this early 1991. I was in 1st period PE class, and we were playing Flag Football. No pads or helmets. On the play in question, I was tasked with blocking the guy who eventually became the starting running back for the varsity team in High School.

He ran me over, knocked me backwards. In an attempt to brace the fall, I suffered a buckle fracture of my left wrist, and my head snapped back into a hardened clump of dirt on the edge of the grass field.

Everything went black for a moment.

When I opened my eyes, the sky had turned from marine-layer grey to blood red. The grass had become neon green. Black dots began appearing everywhere like I was under a giant pepper shaker. I felt dizzy and sick. I got to my feet and nearly threw up. I told the guys on my team I didn’t feel right – as teenage boys do, I got called a pussy and was told to keep playing. I was a zombie, lumbering, with an aching arm and an anvil crashing around inside my skull. I walked to the side of the field, then nothing.

When I opened my eyes again, everything was foggy, and I couldn’t understand what was being said around me. Not quite as dizzy, but still a pounding headache and an arm I couldn’t move without incurring excruciating pain. Someone called out at me about how I felt – thinking I was being made fun of some more, I told the (possible) offender to "Shut the fuck up, you fucking asshole!"

When I heard the "WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY TO ME", response, I knew I’d confused the PE coach with someone else.

The coach immediately called for a janitor’s cart, and sent me to the nurses’ office. Once in the nurse’s office, my mother was contacted. She showed up shortly after, and we waited a couple more minutes until the paramedics showed up. I was fitted with a neck brace and strapped to a back board, noting the terrified looks of my mother and another student in the office, waiting to be picked up by his parents for being sick.

After a short ride to the local hospital, and some time undergoing tests in the ER, I was cleared to leave and my arm was put in a sling.

Luckily for me, that was my only experience with a head injury. Anyone who’s ever played football for any amount of time knows that no football player is ever that lucky.

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Back to the image of Addae staggering around on the field, with what was diagnosed as a neck stinger. It amazes me that no one on the field, nor anyone on either sideline, stopped what they were doing and got him the hell off the field immediately. The fact that he suffered a huge hit earlier in the game, which appeared very serious, made it even worse.

I fully understand the desperation of the player to play. Never mind the negative reinforcement like the kind I described above. Imagine the feeling of letting someone in your family down, multiplied by an entire roster and coaching staff. No words need to be said, no shady machinations of the Bud Kilmer variety are required. All it takes is an exasperated sigh from the defensive coordinator, or a glimpse of the replacement player getting beat for a touchdown, or an eye roll from a teammate to feel the crushing disappointment.

Now, add in the fear which comes from watching your replacement perform well. The desperation which comes with proving you, and not the guy next to you or behind you, are the best option. The fear which comes when you’re hurt and watching someone else do your job… and do it well. Imagine seeing the nodding and smiling of coaches when they see a solution to your injury, which doesn’t involve you getting healthy immediately. The paranoia which comes from thinking you might be getting your last paycheck, and the desperation with which you’ll act to protect that paycheck – especially an undrafted rookie on a small contract. Who’s holding you off the field? Would you say whatever you had to say to get back on the field?

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Everyone is at fault.

Addae was not kept off the field, and he very clearly should have been kept off the field. This tells me one thing; some of Addae’s teammates and opponents, the Chargers as an organization, and the NFL as a league viewed him as a disposable asset. Last, as a fan who continues to watch the games, this makes me complicit in some way.

Complicit in deciding that a Human Being had no value, other than to help other people generate vast sums of money.

Some of this responsibility is on the players and the NFLPA. Players have the option to wear helmets specifically engineered to reduce to risk of concussions, but many choose not to do so. Players can wear mouth guards, but many choose not to do so. And for crying out loud, players simply have to stop hitting helmet first. It may produce big hits, but they also make serious head and neck injuries more likely, not to mention missed tackles from not wrapping up the ball carrier. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention players who take cheap shots at other players, under the false guises of "toughness" and "doing what it takes to win."

As for the NFL, the league could take a number of giant steps forward, but it chooses not to do so. The NFL has levied fines for wearing too much eye black, or using the football as a prop in a TD celebration. Yet the NFL does not mandate that all players wear helmets designed to reduce concussions. It does not mandate that players use mouth guards. The NFL does not ban cut-blocking. It does not kick players out of the league who willfully injure other players, and only temporarily bans coaches who actively encourage their players to hurt other players.

The NFL allows teams to hire their own doctors and training staffs – ignoring the obvious conflict of interest. The NFL chooses not to expand rosters, or allow for additional active players on game day to reduce the possibility of injured players being pushed or rushed back onto the field. The NFL wants to expand the schedule to include more games, but not more bye weeks, and persists with the horrendous Thursday night games – which don’t allow for the type of rest players need between games.

Lastly, on some level, this is also my fault. I continue to watch the games, even knowing there are elements which I don’t like. I continue to buy jerseys, even when the team I cheer for acts horrendously. I think to myself I am lucky when a Fantasy Football opponents’ team is ravaged with injured players.

Jahleel Addae’s injury last night snapped me out of my waking slumber. For me, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to love a game which shows so little concern for the players which make it all possible.

While I hope I’m wrong, and it’s a choice I haven’t yet made, I am at least forced to consider now that sometimes the best thing you can do for something you love is to walk away.