By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
Who needs to live to 75 when the alternative is to live to 60 and have played in the NFL?
That’s the calculation of Bears safety Chris Conte, who is once again dealing with another season plagued by multiple injuries. Just this year he has missed playing time after hurting his back, shoulder and eye, and he has suffered two concussions.
How damaged his brain is by now, we can never know, not with the diagnostic technology available currently and not knowing the clinical effects of every collision his head has endured – both the big blows and the many thousands of aggregated sub-concussive hits from every level of organized tackle football. All we have are the known correlations and common sense, the clear understanding that smashing one’s head into things is bad and that NFL players who do so suffer consequences up to and including premature death.
Conte’s cool with that, as he told WBBM Newsradio recently.
“As far as after football, who knows?” he said. “My life will revolve around football to some point, but 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. 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.”
If that sounds like it came from a 25-year-old with no wife or kids, that’s because it does. His isn’t to consider humanity at the moment, because he’s doing all he has ever wanted to do: get paid to collide with things as explosively as his body allows. This is the essence and horror of a great sport laid bare.
Never mind the larger point, that Conte can already say that he’s played in the league even if he were to walk away right now. This is Conte’s fourth season, which means his career is already slightly longer than average. At some point, possibly soon, the decision will be made for him by others. Until then, he’s all but programmed to continue destroying himself in occasional bursts.
An NFL player simply can’t be concerned about his wellness if he wants to do his job properly. The game demands a misplaced sense of immortality, which is its very glory. Conte didn’t put it in those exact words, but that’s the valuation being made – these years now count for more life than those later and un-promised.
Some of us dislike the continuing efforts to make football safer, although we’re resigned to the fact that the NFL has to weave grand hypocrisies to allay fan discomfort that threatens both audience and the talent pipeline. From an intellectual standpoint, this is the position I have painstakingly carved out, tenuous and conflicted though it may be.
I will never allow my son to play football, and I think that those parents who do let their kids play are doing something reckless and irresponsible with their son’s brain, unless his lot in life is so awful that football is his best and only chance for improvement. But as a fan, I need these bad parents and difficult existences to keep providing the sport with people willing to break each other in pieces for my amusement.
It’s not a particularly humane stance, I’m well aware, but it’s honest.
To compare it with the bread and circuses of ancient Rome is completely fair, and far from a reach. As long as there is informed consent at the professional level, these gladiators should fight on bravely, just like Conte wants to do.
The awful truth is that for football to survive in anything close to the current form that has given it hegemony over televised sports, it needs an unending supply of those who think like Chris Conte.