The NFL’s Risks and Rewards

ESPN broke a story on Wednesday in which Bears safety Chris Conte said that an NFL career was worth the injuries and shortened life expectancy associated with it. I’ll let him tell you in his own words:

“I’d rather have the experience of playing and, who knows, die 10, 15 years earlier than not be able to play in the NFL and live a long life. It’s something I’ve wanted to do with my life and I wanted to accomplish. And I pretty much set my whole life up to accomplish that goal. So I don’t really look toward my life after football because I’ll figure things out when I get there and see how I am.”

In the three days since, he’s been called honest, stupid, and everything in between. I’ve refrained from weighing in for two days, in hopes that my take on this will be three days more thoughtful and well-reasoned than some others. Don’t count on it, but at least I’ve tried.

Honesty is a word that’s coming to my mind again and again when I consider what he said, even though it’s not exactly revelatory to say that someone who talked openly about the possibility of an early death has behaved with uncommon candor. The debate on concussions and player safety has been going on for years, as we’ve learned more and more about the role of brain trauma in the untimely deaths of various NFL veterans. But no one has stepped forward to make his case in favor of football as plainly and unapologetically as Conte did.

When I read Conte’s statement, I nodded to myself and said, “yeah, that’s the argument.” Until now, most people who’ve tried to counter anti-football sentiment have gone with, “well, the risks aren’t really too high.” But that assessment, of course, depends on a individualized calculus of how much risk equals too much risk. For some, any risk of traumatic injury means that football should be out of bounds. Not just for them, as in, “I choose not to play this game,” but for everyone, as in, “people should be legally prohibited from playing this game.”

Conte raises a point about football that’s often lost in these discussions: it’s violent, but it’s fun! Maybe not always, but very few NFL players would argue that playing the sport at the highest level is not, at the very least, a sporadically rewarding experience. All fun comes at a cost. Most forms of fun come with some risk, and we live in a world of trade-offs. Just as some people decided it was worth $15 to witness the fun (or “fun”) of Wrath of the Titans 3D in theaters, Conte has decided that a turbulent medical future is a fair price of admission to America’s greatest sports league.

You may think that’s crazy, but Conte’s words are a reminder that value is subjective. This is something we all need to be reminded every now and then. For some, living to the age of 100 is the highest and most righteous of goals, but Chris Conte doesn’t feel that way. Both outlooks are perfectly fine, even though certain folks have difficulty wrestling with the fact that there are people in the world with priorities different than their own. It can be argued that Conte’s view is selfish, that he’s not thinking about his family or his friends. This argument is a compelling one. But he could shoot back with this: if I’m not following my dreams and staying true to myself, then I’m denying my friends and family just as much of myself as I would by departing this world at a younger age.

Conte’s comments also rebut the notion that athletes are unaware of the risks they face. This rebuttal is another reason his entrance into the conversation on NFL player safety is so welcome. He delivers a right hook to those who feel it’s their responsibility to save the ignorant masses from themselves. Smokers, for example, know what they’re getting into. They’re not ignorant to the risks of their vice, and they’re not counting on their invincibility to shield them from harm. They’ve just decided that the buzzy nicotine brain they get from smoking is worth the risk of emphysema, cancer, or a host of other infelicities of the lungs.

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I’ve reached the stage of writing this piece where I have to lean back in my chair and sigh. I could wrap it up right here and have a nice little hot take for your consumption. But what I’ve written so far only captures a part of how I feel about what Conte said. You might want to mentally insert “End of Part I” above this paragraph. Because, as glad as I am that Conte weighed in, I recognize another, thornier side to all of this.

The comments reflect a really, really grim reality for all the other NFL players and hopefuls in this country, of which there are many.

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Chris Conte has decided to make his NFL career the most important component of his life. As I have explained exhaustively above, I am fine with this decision, and you should be fine with it, too. Agree with it? Not necessarily, but I don’t think you should lose sleep over it. And please don’t write to your congressman about it during an episode of insomnia.

The problem is, Conte’s attitude toward football is just one of many possible attitudes toward football. Not all players share his extreme gladiatorial mindset, and it’s just as legitimate for these players to want a life outside of football as it is for Conte not to want one. No one should feel that their career undermines their humanity.

Football players should be able to balance sport, family, and whatever other (legal) personal interests they may hold. The desire to lead a normal human life, either during or after one’s career, should not be a preclusion from attaining NFL success. Part of what makes us want to spend our time and money on athletes is that, although they may seem to have supernatural talent in a particular area, they’re still human. We tend to cheer for our local teams. We prefer players who put themselves out there as pillars of our communities, and we usually reject those who come across as mercenaries-for-hire seeking nothing but personal benefit (if you don’t believe me, read up on the story of a Mr. Jeter and a Mr. A-Rod.)

What are Conte’s remarks going to do to players who want a life after and outside of football, as well they should? Are they going to be willing to let that recently concussed cranium rest another week, or miss a game for the birth of their child, when they know the guys competing for their roster spots will mortgage their physical and mental futures for a chance? Will NFL players find themselves in an arms race toward Conte-like levels of dauntless devotion to the game?

Don’t think it’s lost on me that these comments are nothing new to NFL players. They’ve heard and seen it all before. But when Chris Conte went public with ideas that many NFL fans probably hadn’t thought much about, he pushed the seed of a question even deeper into his colleagues’ minds: “Can I really afford to sit this one out?” 

Good on Conte for speaking his mind. He said something that a lot of people needed to hear. Let’s hope it works out okay for those who didn’t need to hear it.