Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant.

I always like to go back and re-read things from the last year I thought were ground breaking and would affect the coming year.

The Football and Concussions article in the New Yorker by Ben McGrath is one of these. As a 9 year veteran of the NFL, this article hits close to home, as I played with and against many of the players mentioned.

Who couldn't forget the Zest commercials with Iron Head Hayworth?

"But Iron Head aren't body washes for ladies?"


Or the article Mike Webster's son wrote for Starting Strength? That article was one of the best things I have read in recent years. It was heart wrenching to read, knowing the abuse Mike had taken playing and his eventual demise. But it stirred a feeling of admiration and respect for the man and his accomplishments and the son for sharing private stories of his father.

Football is a violent game, played by violent individuals is what I was always told by coaches and front office.

But now it seems the NFL has an image problem, and the one thing the NFL does not like is an image problem. They pay big money to focus groups and marketing firms to make sure they are operating within the limits of what America feels is "acceptable violence."

What is "acceptable violence?"

Acceptable violence is just enough violence that America keeps turning on the TV, keeps buying the NFL Ticket package and keeps voting for their favorite players online for the Pro Bowl. Too much violence and America will not let their children watch football on Sundays and will start turning off the TVs.

The NFL lives and dies by the TV contracts and if the violence, injuries and players become too much, the American public will become outraged and someone will have to act to save us.

In this case, it is usually Congress or the Senate. Instead, of working to fix the economy and not line their own pockets, politicians will point to violence in NFL football as the reasons for our national trouble. They will start Congressional hearings to examine violence in football and concussions, waste millions of tax payers dollars trying to figure out the only way you are going to stop the violence is to stop paying athletes millions of dollars for playing the game as they are instructed.

Can you imagine losing the Super Bowl because a defensive end does not sack the quarterback before he throws the winning touchdown?

And when the coach, the fans, media and front office ask why he didn't make the play and responds with, "It was going to be a vicious hit and I didn't want to hurt him. So I let up and let him make the play. I don't want to get fined or hurt anyone. Did you want me to potentially hurt the QB and get fined thousands of dollars?"

This is where it is headed.

First, I blame the internet. Before the internet there was no voice for the players who had been injured. Ex-players are messed up with everything from fused backs to dementia and they are talking about it. And players are having serious issues...guys like Mike Webster, Terry Long,  Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters and Dave Duerson being the most public, with four out of five committing suicide.

Second, I blame the blind eye so many have turned towards the NFL for so many years. Most fans, coaches and front office only support their team and realize the players are perishable commodities to be used and thrown away. Look at the reaction by fans during the lockout and NFL contract negations. Very few fans were in the corner of the players and only felt by asking for more money the players were spoiled and greedy. Seems odd when the owners are making money hand over fist on the backs of this perishable commodities; that these pieces of fruit left to rot in the sun should dare ask for a few table scraps of the Jerry Jones, Arthur Blank and Robert Kraft's of the world. Who do they think they are?

How can you stop the violence in football?

You can't.

The game is by nature a violent game.

Ask 11 men wearing armor to impose their will on another group of 11 men wearing armor standing just across an imaginary line and see what happens. Now add 75,000 fans screaming and millions of dollars in salary and see where it gets us. Now breed an attitude of superiority in the men from the time they are children, and for good measure, have them lift weights and train like it was a job from high school.

You are going to find a game more akin to the Roman Gladiator games then ballet. And if it is the modern version of the Gladiator games, then lets not pretend it is something it is not.

I would rather see every player enter the stadium and scream, "Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant."


For those of you without a classics degree, it translates to, "Hail Ceaser, those of us about to die salute you."

The gladiators knew the outcome when they walked on to the sand. Football players should be educated on the outcome of walking out on the field. They should know that in the last 20 years, 15,000 men have played in the NFL and less than 4% have played longer than 4 years.

This is a telling statistic because how many men can take the abuse for longer than 4 years? How many men have the skill to last longer than 4 years? Well, it si only about 652.

They should educate that 652 and tell them, this is what we know happens to a brain exposed to multiple concussions and big hits.

This is what happens to knees, backs and shoulders after too many games, hits and surgeries.

Educate the players and the American public on the effects of playing the game and then let those people potentially playing on Sundays make the decision to play on Sunday.

Posted in Aggressive, Football, Talk to Me Johnnie | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

16 Responses to Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant.

  1. Mike Duncan

    Nice! There was a huge debate about 100yrs ago when football was just barely a national sport: men died on the field and it was felt that football was TOO violent to be perpetuated. If you’ve got a free minute or 20 listen to this podcast on how TDR saved football: http://artofmanliness.com/2011/04/22/art-of-manliness-podcast-episode-37-how-teddy-roosevelt-saved-football-with-john-miller/

  2. Petey

    Look at the reaction by fans during the lockout and NFL contract negations. Very few fans were in the corner of the players and only felt by asking for more money the players were spoiled and greedy. Seems odd when the owners are making money hand over fist on the backs of this perishable commodities; that these pieces of fruit left to rot in the sun should dare ask for a few table scraps of the Jerry Jones, Arthur Blank and Robert Kraft’s of the world. Who do they think they are?

    That’s auto, steel, coal and other unions have been saying for years. Great article John, Football is and should always be what it is: a very risky but very rewarding.

    1.) What about getting rid of helmets and shoulder pads with plastic? Maybe just like the old timey Jim Thorpe day. I played up to grade school, and fractured a vertebrae in my upper back, it wasn’t till joining the USMC and getting an x-ray that I knew about it. But I remember the pain for a week solid after that hit.

    2.) I read an article recently talking about building even better helmets for shock resistance, but I personally think its like running shoes getting more and more padding.

    3.) http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/The-312/February-2011/Dave-Duerson-Concussions-and-the-NFL-Players-Union-Battle/

    3.) Those about to die…….(lump in throat.)


  3. Scott

    Of course, the gladiators were slaves, whose only choice was to submit and die quickly, or fight to stay alive. Not quite the same situation. This is the same argument cigarette companies use, btw. Just educate the public and let them decide, then it’s their fault if they die. The problem is, few of the young men who will be faced with the choice think they won’t be amongst those 652, and the short term reward so vastly outweighs the long term risk, it’s difficult to imagine them taking their “decision” seriously. We need a better solution, the market won’t solve this for us.

  4. Roylee

    Great piece well said

  5. Pingback: Daily WOD | Wodders

  6. dr. catfish

    Agreed, John. Football is violent, and lucrative, and wrapped up in American dreams of glory in combat (see http://www.sgiquarterly.org/feature2006Jly-2.html). It isn’t going anywhere, so let’s educate players as best we can and perhaps emerging helmet technology can help with the worst of the “hidden” cumulative effects of head trauma. Crippling arthritis and back pain are one thing, but long term brain damage is another, no? Your arguments certainly make me even more squarely on the side of the player.

  7. Eric Duechle

    I think if you took the pads and helmet out of football there would be less serious injuries, and more focus on form tackling (no helmet to helmet hits, diving tackles, etc). With pads I remember I felt invincible, playing rugby you make sure you tackle the right way every time.

    And a side benefit, maybe get less holding calls?

    • You can’t take the helmets and pads out of the game. You end up with rugby which is already a stop or flag football and my wife played in a flag football league. and so did luke.

      Think about it this way. If you hang someone can you avoid killing them? No really, if the initial snap doesn’t kill them, they will choke to death. Football is like a hanging. It is impossible to stop the hits. If the first done doesn’t end you the repeated hits will take a toll.

  8. CMcKay

    I grew up a football player, but ended up a rugby player. I was great in HS, good in College, and then found rugby (during college).

    I only have two favorite sports to watch: football and rugby. Period end of sentence. As I’ve played rugby for 12+ years now, I enjoy watching a pro rugby game just as much now as I’ve always liked college and pro football. I can certainly see, though, how most any American who doesn’t know rugby would MUCH prefer a football game over a rugby match. The fireworks, big hits, dudes flipped up in the air, linemen going at it, heroic catches/runs, etc. It sells.
    When you strip away all the glitz and the glam though, you get a game actually alot like rugby. Especially ‘old school’ football. Seems today the people in charge (and we are to blame too I suppose) are much more prone to selling the fireworks and career ending hits rather than players who just take care of business the ‘right’ way.
    I like rugby because it seems to stay true to rugby. How the game is played and player safety are extremely important aspects of any decisions the IRB makes. Football decisions these days seem to be driven by $, entertainment, and the glitz and the glamor.

    Is football going anywhere? No. Will I attend
    games and root for my team? Yes. I’ll also happily continue playing rugby where I’ve had 2 injuries in 12 years (broken hand and ankle tendinitis). If I had my choice of sport for my 3 year old son – I’d most certainly choose rugby.

  9. Shawn Slattery

    John, thanks for an excellent article which Rippetoe linked to from his Starting Strength forum. I want to ask about one thing though, you state, “… They should know that in the last 20 years, 15,000 men have played in the NFL and less than 4% have played longer than 4 years….This is a telling statistic because how many men can take the abuse for longer than 4 years? How many men have the skill to last longer than 4 years? Well, it si [is] only about 652.”

    I found a table provided by the NFL Players association that showed the longevity (by accrued season) of the 1888 NFL players at the beginning of the 2010 season that told a different story. It showed that 600 players had 5 or more seasons which is about 32% of the total. Is it possible that you have inadvertently used the current number of players over 4 years and divided by the number of players over the last 20 years?

    • No. That statistic come from Troy Vincent who was on the executive committee for the NFLPA and the heir to gene upshaw. We played togethet in philly when i was the player rep. Troy now works for the NFL in a new capacity. Troy dropped that statistic at a talk at USC and when I saw Troy we spoke about it and he confirmed it. I have not seen the NFLPA version but i will check I out.

  10. Pingback: Friday 12.30.11 « Crossfit South Bend blog

  11. Andrew Saltz


    You spoke about it above, but I’d love your opinion on creating rugby-type helmets for players. These helmets would be soft and could not be used as a weapon. The hope is this would be a huge incentive to tackle “the right way”.

    This idea gets brought up in discussions fairly often, I would love your opinion (I’ll assume it’s “you can’t take the violence out of football, so don’t ruin the sport by trying”, but I’m not sure).


  12. Drew

    I’ve never played football but I have played hockey for the last 25 years. I played in high school and college. The same issues are present in hockey as football…with guys getting hurt and concussed from big hits and fights.

    Hitting and fighting aren’t going anywhere (ever watched a women’s hockey game in the Olympics? No thank you.) but what the games need is for players to do this the right way. The thought of trying to hurt your opponents every chance you get is the wrong way to go about it. You can tackle a player or check him to take him out of the play without injuring him.

    The issue, in my mind, is that there is very little respect left between athletes. Our sports culture along with professional salaries have created an environment where athletes are easily replaced. Players are willing to sacrifice another guy’s health for a big hit that will establish a their reputation or status in the league. There’s no rule or educating that can or needs to be done here. Without that mutual respect for your opponents, this is going to keep happening.

    Let’s also talk about the change in athletes’ conditioning over the past 50 years (that’s an arbitrary number). Athletes of the early days were naturally talented…football players were farmboys who happened to be big and strong. With an influx of more and more big, strong players, they were forced to look for something to set themselves apart from the rest. This is where strength and conditioning comes into play…in order to play with the best, you need to train off of the field too.

    Slowly (and I promise I’m not going onto the steroid topic, as much as I’d like to), everyone in the league is doing some kind of conditioning off of the field. Those looking for that “edge” turn to new conditioning methods…and then when this training becomes widespread they turn to steroids…and the cycle goes on and on.

    The point that I’m getting at is that players are so fast and so strong in the current state of the game that these types of things are inevitable. We’re building players that are capable of doing things to other players that the human body is not built to endure. But this is the evolution of the games. Fans want bigger and faster. We want the flash. The big plays. The big hits.

    These players know exactly what they’re signing up for. Football is a dangerous game. There is always the chance of injury, there is no hiding that. The players aren’t forced out on the field (the “what else are they going to do?” argument does not hold water…these guys are fully capable of making a living doing something else if they are worried about being hurt or their long term health from playing professional football). I think that when players decide that the millions of dollars aren’t enough to put their bodies through the game that we will see some kind of change to football.

    Until then…I think that the NFL is home to some of the best athletes on the planet (If anyone says “what about Rich Froning” I’m going to lose it and start kicking down cubicle walls in my office) and we are all just lucky to see the game played the way it is.

    I apologize for my long rant…but it’s pretty slow in the office today and at least if I’m typing it sounds like I’m getting work done. Best wishes in 2012.

  13. Jonathan

    No offense, but isn’t the warrior analogy a little tired? Football players aren’t wearing armor, nor are they gladiators. Players don’t routinely kill one another, nor is that anything close to their purpose for being on the field. Football is game; a tough game perhaps, but a game nonetheless. Contrast that with say, a Marine in Afghanistan, who is in fact trying to kill his enemy while his enemy tries to kill him. That only ends one way: one or the other ends up in a pine box. The stakes are infinitely higher than any game. To quote Unforgiven, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

    FWIW, I really appreciate the blog and the CFFB concepts.

  14. Pingback: Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant. « Thor Falk's Reading List

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *