It’s time the NFL faced reality and took care of its players
Kenny Easley was a throwback. A hard-hitting enforcer from the Seahawks secondary who played at a time when the term “defenseless receiver” was a joke, not a part of the NFL rulebook.
He embodied some of the very best attributes of the Seahawks ’80s era, which is why he was enshrined in the National Football League Hall of Fame this weekend. The way his career ended also spoke to the painful reality of that time, too.
His journey to the Hall is tainted a bit by how his career ended. For those of you who don’t know, or don’t remember, Kenny Easley’s football career was cut short by pain pills. Over the counter pain pills given to him by the Seahawks training staff. Lots and lots of pills. There was a lawsuit, there was a settlement. Kenny stayed away from the Seahawks for 15 years.
The NFL in the ’70s and ’80s was a different place.
My first full-time job in radio was working for the flagship station for the Oakland Raiders. I remember sitting in a booth at an Oakland bar one Sunday afternoon with Jim Plunkett and Jim Otto. They were swapping stories over some beers, and I was pinching myself. As a lifelong NFL fan, I couldn’t believe I was even sitting at the table.
Otto, the Hall of Fame center, was commenting about a current player who was going to miss a few games with a pulled groin.
“Pulled groin? I don’t even know what that means, pulled groin. Back in my day, you just grabbed a needle and shot it up and got back out there and played.”
Plunkett, the Super Bowl winning QB slapped the table and laughed, so I laughed too.
I’ve told that story a hundred times, but I don’t think it’s funny anymore.
There is a large window of time that the NFL knowingly destroyed the bodies of its players. They fostered a culture where you were celebrated when you played hurt. Being the toughest guy in the room was the only thing that mattered.
Kenny Easley mentioned fellow safety Ronnie Lott in his speech over the weekend. Lott was celebrated for amputating part of a finger so he could play in a Super Bowl. NFL fans eat this kind of thing up. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t do it, too.
I’m reminded of a passage I read by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his amazing book, “Between the World and Me:”
Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.
His book is the best I’ve ever read about the issue of slavery in America, but that quote could be equally applied to the National Football League with a few words changed: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In the NFL, it is traditional to destroy the player’s body – it is heritage.”
So what are we talking about here?
In my opinion, it’s time for the NFL to get serious about taking care of its workforce. If you are going to ask these young men to sacrifice their bodies for our entertainment and civic pride, the least you can do is to guarantee their contracts. It’s shameful that the 9th man on an NBA bench has a guaranteed contract and a household name player in the NFL does not.
The NFL is by far the richest sports league in the country. It’s time you guarantee the players contracts.
Also, do whatever it takes to address CTE. It’s now pretty conclusive that slamming your head encased in a helmet into another human being a few thousand times permanently damages the human brain.
If you can’t solve it with better hardware, then do something radical. NFL Hall Of Fame Coach John Madden suggested that in youth football they just remove the helmet all together to focus on better technique. Maybe he’s on to something. Intentionally make the head protection such that you can’t just run your brain into anything at top speed.
Fans would revolt at first, but they’d get use to it.
The NFL needs to stop pretending that they aren’t complicit in the destruction brought about by this violent game.
I’m happy for the Seahawks and that Kenny Easley is now in the Hall of Fame.
I just hope that the League does a better job of not destroying the bodies of its employees.
“What Are We Talking About Here” can be heard every weekday at 4:50 p.m. and 6:50 p.m. on the Ron & Don Show on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM.