They say you can’t really understand a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. The NFL (and fans for that matter) should head these words. But instead of shoes, it should be a NASCAR cockpit, and instead of one mile try 500. I just got done reading this article by Ryan McGee on ESPN.com and his angle on relating NASCAR to the current NFL player safety dilemma is very interesting, albeit slightly flawed.
I used to like NASCAR. Growing up as a kid, my dad and I would watch the weekend races. Sometimes we would even try and catch the time trials if you could find them on one of the ESPN’s or other channel (Speed network had yet to come into existence). My dad would sit in the living room and wait for my mom to leave the house or at the very least go downstairs to the basement so he could crank up the TV speakers just to hear those engines roar and doppler past the cameras. It was fun and we had our favorite drivers. I fell out of watching NASCAR – probably because there was a large part of me that just couldn’t stand the redneck jokes that inherently came with being a fan. That and I think the post graduate ‘adult’ in me found it hard to justify burning all that high octane fuel to just go around in a circle. But even with my distaste for the sport, I can’t help but marvel at the balls it takes to drive 200 mph+, three abreast across a track, and a car behind milliseconds behind you ready to ram its front end right up your tailpipe. There is certainly respect there, and those men are a tough bunch of S.O.B’s.
McGee resurfaces for some and brings to light for other NFL fans the colossal amount of pushback the drivers had against safety precautions while racing – none bigger than the HANS system. Why so much distaste for safety? Toughness. That famed constructed persona that because you are tough as nails safety is for suckers. That’s part of why you are respected and revered so much by peers and fans. It’s something that can’t be compromised. That is… until someone dies. Ok well it took 10 deaths in five years with one involving a legend of the sport (one Dale Earnhardt). But, the culmination of those finally softened NASCAR drivers to use the safety measures created. Oh yeah, according to McGee, those safety measures were created 20 years ago. No NASCAR driver has perished since 2001 in a race related accident.
I watched the Daytona 500 where Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in that fatal crash. It looked like any other crash you might see. It was fairly tame, by rollover and flaming engine standards. He just hit the wall. Hard. Lots of guys walked away from crashed like that, yet this time Dale didn’t. His head practically separated from it’s spine in the crash, and killed him. Had he had worn the HANS device, he would have survived.
So where does the NFL and the players fit into all of this? David Coleman is probably a name you’ve never heard of. And if you have, it probably wasn’t until Saturday when you learned that Coleman was a semi-pro football player who died from a blindsided hit while trying to make a tackle during a punt return in that afternoon’s charity game. No other details of exact cause of death have been released at this point, but as an NFL fan, this bit of news gets my palms sweaty.
There’s always been the threat of, ‘Just wait until someone dies on a football field. That’s going to change everything.’ Well unfortunately, I don’t think Coleman’s death will be the event that will be the clarion call for some major rule and equipment changes in the NFL. The NFL, if not careful and learn from other histories of similar ‘risk taking’ sports, will walk a very similar path that NASCAR did.
This is where I feel McGee falls short in his relative assessment. He mentions Seau at the very beginning, but fails to point out that players like Seau are the very mirror we should be holding up to the NFL. McGee looks at NASCAR deaths on the track and projects that back onto the NFL with only its current players – sort of a if you don’t change your ways eventually someone will die on the field. But, I argue that the NFL has already had the deaths that McGee ‘forewarns’ the reader about. All of the suicides committed by former players are as much a ‘wakeup call’ incident than if an active player were to die on the field on a given Sunday. No one is just honing up to it. It is because of those deaths that all players in the NFL should stop and refocus their efforts on making the game safer for themselves. Between all the glitz, glamor and mad Benjamins that is associated with the NFL, players cannot see that they too face the risk of ending up like Junior Seau. Junior Seau is the NFL’s Dale Earnhardt. The NFL lost a legend in a tragic fashion just as NASCAR lost its legend on the race track eleven years ago. I’m not saying that there were safety measures already in place and Seau chose not to partake in them like Earnhardt. What I am saying is that Earnhardt’s death was the defining moment of driver safety in NASCAR. Seau’s death should be the defining moment for the NFL and NFLPA. The players need to see the writing on the wall.
This is all assuming that those safety measures exist. Regardless, the players should take heed and refrain from preventing safety measures – whether rules or equipment – from being implemented. Let them come and welcome them with open arms. We’ll never see a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning die from a hard hit on the field. But, we may see other legendary players of today perish years from now as a result of this silent killer.
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