Ronald Metellus on concussions, Manti Te’o, and the complicity of fandom.
Two Samoan linebackers have been making news lately. One is a graduating college senior and the other is dead. The latter, Junior Seau, shot himself in the heart and recently had his brain examined, the results of which revealed that Seau was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The former is Manti Te’o, whose girlfriend was in a serious car accident and then died of leukemia—and was then revealed to have never existed.
Seau is another in an unfortunate trend of players who have killed themselves after suffering neurodegenerative deceases and/or dementia. These same players have shot themselves in the chest so that there brains could be examined. These players wanted to raise awareness about the long-term mental health risk involved with playing football. Te’o is the first player to be duped—or maybe complicit—in a particularly modern story: an online dating hoax sprinkled with the old “playing with a heavy heart” adage, set on one of the most storied college football institutions. You already know which story got more coverage.
I can’t remember a football season more morbid. If you, like me, are one of over 24 million people playing Fantasy Football then you spent a lot of time reading about death between updating your rosters. There was Torrey Smith, whose young brother died in a motorcycle accident. There was Marcell Dareus, whose younger brother was murdered. Fans were implicated too, like the Bears fan who traveled to watch his team play in Jacksonville and got his throat slit at a sports bar; or the drunk Bills fan who was ejected from a game and later found dead in a creek; or the Falcons fan who was stabbed in the neck after punching a 49ers fan after the NFC Championship Game. Kansas City Chief Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself at a practice facility near Arrowhead Stadium. Dallas Cowboy Josh Brent was charged with intoxicated manslaughter when he crashed his SUV and killed his teammate, and roommate, Jerry Brown.
These are national news stories. You don’t even have to fish around the local sports section to find out about the deaths of fans. I’ve never read about a dead Yankees fan. In all likelihood, one Yankees fan dies every day. The baseball season is endless; 162 games from April to November compared to the NFL’s 16 games, and last year I don’t remember reading about a death in the family of a shortstop. Over 162 games, someone’s grandmother has to pass away.
Unlike the NFL, Major League Baseball has been transformed by its most controversial subject. If we’re not talking about substance abuse problems among active players, then it’s the off-season and we’re talking about how to deal with steroid-era players eligible for the Hall of the Fame. The NFL hasn’t reckoned with its concussion problem in the same way.
There’s a point to be made that because the NFL schedule is so regimented through the course of one week—injury reports are kept daily for gamblers and Fantasy Football players alike—that it makes sense that we know about why players leave practice when a family member passes. But things should be a little different when a player takes his own life, especially when football can be implicated in the degeneration of his mental health. Especially when in an eight month span, four NFL players (young, middle-aged, and old) have committed suicide. To what extent does all this news about death shift the conversation from one about concussions to one about mortality, something that we all—fans too—must reckon with?
When I get discouraged about the ubiquity of death in NFL news, I try to remember the power of narrative. The NFL doesn’t have to make tragedy interesting through its news—it’s implicitly interesting. Learning about the adversity our teams and players face will always be compelling. And despite some excellent reportage about concussions and CTE from sources including Joanna Schroeder at this magazine, PBS’ “Frontline,” ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” and Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker, the subject isn’t as compelling. There’s so much work to do to capture the attention of the people who matter most: parents. The narrative that’d change the way we deal with concussions is “I’m not letting my son play. It’s not safe,” because no matter how much regulation we see at the professional level, kids are hitting each other in high school and college football. President Obama has said that “if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” and he said it at an opportune time—before Superbowl Media Day. Future Hall-of-Famer, Ed Reed, agreed when asked about the President’s comments, saying, “I’m not forcing football on my son … All I can do is say, ‘Son, I played it so you don’t have to.’ ” With each of these comments, the discussion takes a step further.
With the access we’re given to players on Twitter, it’s hard to remember how little we know about them. Sending our condolences through tweets is a fine thing to do, but it contributes to the myth of intimacy. This confusion was on display in the case of Jovan Belcher: fans who had a kind of relationship with the player were saddened by his passing, but what kind of pedestal do we place someone upon, who has just killed his girlfriend? Isn’t a part of the sympathy and reverence paid to Belcher a result of his contributions to the great fiction that is fandom? The magnetism that brings people together as fans can also make us unlikely apologists. (My friends at Penn State who made the case for Joe Paterno on their Facebook feeds can speak to this. I can too, as an Eagles fan who defends Mike Vick.)
When the girlfriend hoax story broke, Manti Te’o expressed regret and humiliation in his opening statement, resigning that “If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.” Don’t be so hard on yourself, Manti. We’re all creating fictions.
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