The crawl across the bottom of the TV screen in my local the other night mentioned that Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had recovered from his mild concussion and likely would be able to suit up on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.
The next day, Roethlisberger took questions and told the media that he was putting all this in the past, so much so that he was declining even to wear a special helmet designed so that he would not get another concussion. Now, I am all in favor of the notion that, as my grandmother used to say, everyone should go to hell in their own way, but I’d like to say the following, for the record.
Ben Roethlisberger is not brave.
Ben Roethlisberger is a moron.
Any doctor who clears him to play is a moron.
Any coach who sends him out to play is a moron.
Any writer, TV pundit, former player, or fan who cheers him while he plays is a moron.
Ben Roethlisberger’s career as a professional football player should be over.
Are we all clear?
Great. We can continue.
This is the third football-related concussion of Roethlisberger’s career. (For the moment, let us leave aside the damage that may have been done as a result of the spectacular motorcycle crash he had in June 2006.) It will not be the last. Every concussion you have makes you substantially more likely to have another, and then another. Concussions are as basic to football as beer commercials and subliterate television commentary. You simply cannot play football without getting concussions, the destruction of the human body being as essential to football as it ever was to boxing, only a little more accidental. Repeated concussions should disqualify you physically from playing football the same way that someone struck blind is disqualified physically from driving a bus.
Make no mistake. There is no such thing as a “mild” concussion. Listen to how Roethlisberger described his “mild” concussion to Judy Battista of The New York Times: “It was scary, especially when you can’t feel your arms. When they scooped me up to put me on that pan, I couldn’t feel it.”
In what moral universe does this make any sense to anyone?
Nice to have you back, Ben.
This is not blowing out a knee, or pitching through a fraying rotator cuff, or running with a balky hamstring. This is messing with the fundamentals of what makes you an individual human being. Every year at the Super Bowl, they bring out the legends of the game, and it is an awful moment. It’s like those films of the Gettysburg reunions, with all the old men with their white hair, their white beards, and their missing limbs. Old NFL players walk as though all their joints are made of glass. But the really sad ones are the ones who plainly can no longer think clearly, who struggle to find words as though their tongues were made of wool and their brains of soggy peat. Some of them are simply old men who limp. The others are the old men who are not themselves any more.
Everyone in this business knows athletes who have had repeated concussions. They are written up and discussed the same way that any other injuries are. But they are not like any other injuries. They are different, and by such an order of magnitude that the glib libertarian arguments about a player and his body sound positively puerile. Right now, there are at least five or six players in any NFL locker room who will wind up with Alzheimer’s disease, or some other sort of dementia, years earlier than they might have otherwise simply because they have taken repeated concussions as part of doing their job. A 2002 study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that “mild repetitive head injuries” accelerate the process by which Alzheimer’s destroys the brain.
There’s that word again. “Mild.”
I do not think this word means what you think it means, Ben.
Let me explain it to you slowly, gentlemen. Alzheimer’s is not something with which you want to pick a fight. You will lose, badly, every time. You want to know what Alzheimer’s does to you? One day, for example, you might have some teeth that hurt, but your higher speech centers have been rendered useless, so you can’t tell anyone. You know what you do then? You sit on the sofa, in front of your entire family, including your young grandchildren, and pull your teeth out by the bloody roots with your fingers. That’s what happens.You blow out a knee, and you lose an attribute that allowed you to make a living. Concussions begin the process of robbing you of who you are.
Which brings us to the Boston Bruins and Patrice Bergeron. On Oct. 27, 2007, Bergeron was freight-trained into the boards by Randy Jones of the Philadelphia Flyers. He suffered a concussion so severe that he couldn’t get out of bed. He came back this year. Everybody cheered. Then, on Dec. 20, he got hit by Dennis Seidenberg of the Carolina Panthers and suffered another concussion.
Sadly, Patrice Bergeron’s career as a professional hockey player should be over.
OT columnist Charles P. Pierce is a Boston Globe Magazine staff writer.