Former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling died on Thursday from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. He was 62 years old and had long suffered from depression, insomnia and dementia—three ailments that occur in rates far greater in football players than the general population. And in addition to occurring more often, dementia—along with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, another illness appearing more regularly in retired football players—often takes hold much earlier in life. These are all relatively rare, old-people’s ailments; for football players, they’re common, young people’s illnesses.
Per the New York Times and other outlets, Easterling was a named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NFL filed last summer. The lawsuit contended the league had known about the concussion risk in football for decades and done nothing to address it, ignoring, lying about and capitalizing from concussion-inducing hits in the game while not providing adequate treatment to concussed players. (As someone who recently suffered a sports-related concussion, I can attest that adequate treatment goes a hell of a long way to speeding up recovery time and generally helping with quality of life. And that’s with just one concussion, not one or more per year for several years.) In response, the league has taken a number of steps in recent years to address concussions in the sport, changing many of the rules to protect players, fining players guilty of illegal or dangerous hits and attempting to stamp out a widespread culture of bounties and intentionally injurious play. The efficacy of these steps isn’t quite certain, as they sometimes come off as cynical attempts to minimize legal liability in lawsuits such as Easterling’s by shifting the blame for violent hits from the league-as-arbiter-of-sport’s-culture to rogue players and teams. Still, they’re steps.
But despite any changes in rules, discipline or culture, football will continue to be violent, as that violence is inherent to the sport. For it to continue as tackle football as such, defenders will tackle, ballcarriers will attempt to barrel over tacklers and linemen will battle in the trenches, crashing into each other with all their might over and over and over again. No matter what, players will continue to suffer brain trauma. They know this, but the exciting, entertaining, beautiful, challenging and violent sport is worth it to them. The net result of this is that the Ray Easterlings of tomorrow will be the Austin Collies of today.
How will we, as fans, feel when the broken shell of Ray Lewis is taken out on a wheelchair to “throw” the first pitch at the Orioles’ Opening Day in 2042? How should we react to the future suicides of our current heroes? Is our fandom worth their future pain?
Ray Easterling played only seven seasons in the NFL, helping the Falcons set team and league records. For his troubles, he got depression and dementia, leading to his suicide. (Granted, there is a very good chance Easterling was genetically predisposed to these ailments; we do not know his family history. The caveat is that football does not cause these issues, but it exacerbates and accelerates them.) His is the human face of a sport that is more often reduced to the ultimate goal of athletics: wins and losses. Fans and pundits dissect and analyze and criticize players’ performances based on their stat lines, reducing their existences to quantifiable measures that obscure the fact that these are regular, hard-working, freakishly athletic human beings with histories, families, feelings and futures.
Let’s take a fairly typical player (one of my favorites) as an example: Jabari Greer, a former undrafted free agent who recently received a contract extension from the Saints. As an engaged member of his hometown community and a talented, funny writer, Greer has proven himself to be more than just a talented cover corner. As a Saints fan, I love having him on our team and in our city. But on top of that he is, quite simply, a human being. He seems like a pretty good guy. The idea that his quality of life and his intellectual power might be reduced significantly when his football career ends is deeply saddening.
When you start to think of these players as human beings rather than stat lines and spots on a depth chart, you can’t help but wish them the best. All of them. I don’t like the Falcons and think Roddy White is an ass, but he’s still a person whom I would hate to see fall victim to any sort of catastrophic injury or slowly-degenerating ailment.
We often discuss football in terms inspired by warfare. Teams are run with military-level secrecy; games are war; linemen battle in the trenches; quarterbacks throw bombs. On another level, the sport is very much at war with itself as its inherent violence threatens the long term viability of the NFL’s presently unimaginable profitability. And as fans we continue to cheer it on as these men destroy themselves for the competition, inspiring us with pure enjoyment and community pride.
But the players are not just players. They are people. Let us not forget that.