By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) In a recent Chicago Tribune profile of injury-plagued NFL safety Chris Conte, one line stood out. It concerned his single-minded pursuit of a football career from an early age, and his parents’ response.
“Although the Contes hoped Chris would focus on another sport by the time he got to Loyola High, they validated his ambitions the same way they would if he had wanted to be a carpenter,” Rich Campbell writes.
That would seem to be an odd decision for them, considering that they were in a position to dictate or guide their son’s athletic focus and that a career in woodworking would have been unlikely to result in him sustaining multiple concussions and injuries to his shoulders, back and eye. Unless he was a spectacularly incompetent and reckless carpenter.
Even outside of the injuries, he was allowed to choose a profession that by its very nature, when played correctly and by the rules, causes brain damage.
Mark Conte is a TV and film editor in suburban Los Angeles, and Anne Conte is an eighth-grade teacher. The family wasn’t banking on Chris’ NFL success as some lottery ticket, a risky, last-ditch shot at getting out of a life of poverty. But even with the countless other avenues available to him, he was permitted to choose something proven likely to shorten the length and quality of his life.
Not that he really cares. As chronicled previously in this space, Conte has reconciled his decision to play, at least after the fact.
“I’d rather have the experience of playing in the NFL and die 10 to 15 years earlier than not play in the NFL and have a long life,” Conte told WBBM-AM in December. “I don’t really look toward to my life after football. I’ll figure things out when I get there. As long as I outlive my parents.”
Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. And please die before I do.
“It’s disturbing and you worry,” Anne Conte said to the Tribune. “What I can do as a parent is be supportive and help him make good decisions about things.”
Sounds like that’s going great.
Contrast this with the response from Jeff Borland, the father of former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who announced his retirement Monday at age 24, citing concern about head trauma.
“I think it’s maybe one of those affirming things as a parent, you know, that maybe somewhere along the line you accidentally did something right,” Jeff told Fox Sports. “He’s been quite introspective. He’s reasoned it out on his own. The thing he’s repeated is the decision itself was simple. You’re just not made to take that kind of contact, that kind of trauma to our heads. If this goes on, it can’t be good.”
The elder Borland is the president of a Dayton, Ohio-based financial planning company, and like the Contes, the family wasn’t reliant on their son’s success to change their socioeconomic status for the better. It makes the “unanimous and very positive” family support that he described easier and more understandable.
And this isn’t to say that the Contes would react differently if their Chris showed anything close to the same concern for his future well-being and the burden it could place on loved ones. We would hope that such a response would be simple common sense and concerned, loving parenting.
Which brings us back to the real discussion, the one that scares the NFL. While it’s big news when we hear from current professionals admitting to the endemic peril of football – either the grim resignation of Conte to push himself further or the epiphany reached by Borland to escape right away — the conversations that matter are happening between moms and dads in these same suburbs in comfortable houses.
Football, like boxing, will always have those playing out of necessity. The rewards will remain too great, and the risk calculation will still make sense for them. The general trend of a shrinking American middle class amid income inequality is actually good for the future of the game, guaranteeing a larger pool of those opting in just for a spin of the wheel. But the culture is changing.
Right now this is playing out in headlines and sound bites, in these columns and in sports minutes, with grand pronouncements and apocalyptic predictions about what football will eventually become. But what matters truly aren’t the thoughts of the names we know, whether current or retired players or anyone in the media with an opinion.
It’s about the thoughts of more informed parents of 10-year-old kids and high-schoolers, speaking quietly across the kitchen table while homework gets done downstairs and the sound of the TV hums in from the family room.
They look at permission slips and liability waivers in front of them demanding signatures, and they look at each other, and at their son.