Hindsight might not be 20/20 yet for Scott Fujita.
Fujita, who spent a decade as an NFL linebacker, wrote a thoughtful essay this week about whether he would let his son play football. It’s a purely hypothetical question for him, since he doesn’t even have a son, just three daughters. But obviously Americans who do have sons are asking themselves whether they should allow them to take the field.
Fujita’s piece was in The New York Times sports section Wednesday, where he recalled how his parents didn’t want him to play tackle football when he was 8. His tears convinced them otherwise. The rest its history: He played pro.
In the essay, Fujita also described his love-hate relationship with the game, which has been his ticket to success, financial reward and friendships.
In recent times Fujita said he’s been deluged with emails from friends and family, who forward him articles about concussions, long-term brain injury and football.
In the end, Fujita’s love of football overcomes his hate of it. He admits he has loved the game since he was a kid, even enjoying the “bull-in-the-ring” drills, where the player in the middle is rushed by his teammates. Fujita loved the camaraderie of the sport, and the resilience it teaches.
His answer to whether he would he play again is simple, “Absolutely. Without hesitation.”
But Fujita may have a different answer years from now, decades from now. Maybe when he is 60, he will develop early onset dementia. Maybe one of his best friends at the NFL will develop it. Maybe then Fujita will regret playing football. And that’s what I mean about hindsight not being 20/20 yet for him.
A number of elderly, retired NFL players have come down with early dementia, or have CT, a degenerative brain disease whose symptoms — memory loss, emotional outbursts, cognitive decline — are similar to Alzheimer’s. A number of these players have committed suicide. The stories of the mental decline of these athletes are heart-wrenching.
Some ex-NFL players, part of the recently settled concussion- lawsuit against the league, said in interviews that they would never have played the game if they knew how they would end up.
Back in the day, players knew they would sustain physical injuries from their years on the gridiron. But they didn’t bargain for mental decline as bad as a lifelong boxer.
Fujita never mentions having suffered a concussion, so maybe he doesn’t have anything to worry about. But maybe he does.
The Times also recently ran a column about the outcome of the NFL lawsuit, an article headlined “Settlement Leaves Fans at a Moral Crossroads.” Sports writer William C. Rhoden expressed his guilt about covering games that will likely leave some players mentally disabled decades from now.
Several weeks ago the NFL reached a $756 million settlement with more than 4,500 former and current players, putting to an end a lawsuit the plaintiffs had brought against the league. The suit alleged that the league let players suffer concussions and head blows and hid the long-term dangers of such injuries.
The NFL didn’t admit any wrongdoing, or responsibility, as part of the settlement. The league got off the hook handily.
Rhoden calls the settlement a “game changer,” and seems critical and judgmental of the ex-players for caving in and not taking the case to court.
“By settling, the former players and their families won immediate financial assistance for pressing and sometimes costly medical problems,” Rhoden wrote. “However, they lost a golden opportunity to learn more about what might have caused them.”
That’s very easy for Rhoden to say. These players, many trying to cope with sky-high medical bills and trying to fight back against their premature dementia, decided they couldn’t risk going to trial. They couldn’t risk losing the case, and ending up with nothing. They couldn’t risk having the case drag on and dying before it ended.
I would not let my son play football.