Bleacher Report released an article this week profiling former Tennessee Volunteer running back Jamal Lewis and his struggles dealing with concussions from when he played football. And as insightful and revealing as the profile is, it has proven to be quite divisive among fans.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 29, 2018
Lewis was a Freshman All-American, SEC Champion, and National Champion during his time at Tennessee. He is also one of the few people on planet Earth who has thrown a touchdown pass to Peyton Manning. You read that right.
In the NFL, Lewis thrived. In 2003, he was 39 yards short of breaking the NFL single season rushing record, posting a 2,066 yard season. That same year, he set the single-game rushing record with his 295 yard performance against the Browns. He also won Super Bowl XXXV with the Ravens, dominating the New York Giants 34-7.
In total, between his college career and his NFL career, Lewis has ran the ball over 3,000 times. Never the one to dodge a tackler, Lewis is now feeling the repercussions of a career of never running scared.
This is where the issue becomes divisive.
Lewis is proud of his career, as he should be. But was it worth the cost of his own health? Lewis’s situation is similar to many others of former players, and the Bleacher Report article serves as a good jumping off point to examine both sides of the problem.
The Player Safety Argument
This is the more apparent side of the issue when discussing brain injuries in football, as it should be. There are no shortage of former players that had fantastic careers, but their brain has been so irreparably damaged that they can’t live the normal life that they’ve been working towards for so many years. Some have even taken their own lives because of it.
This could not be more clear in the case of Jamal Lewis.
When the NFL ejected him—when one final undiagnosed concussion sent Lewis spiraling into the abyss—he considered killing himself. “You think about death,” the former Ravens star says. “I’ve thought about suicide. I’ve thought about ending it all.”
That’s not normal.
That’s not okay.
Frankly, though, it makes sense. If you bang your head against something for a living, eventually, there are going to be some lasting effects. Even reading the symptoms of CTE will make any sane person cringe. Just like a knee that gets injured multiple times over the course of a few years, the brain doesn’t function the way it should if it takes too much punishment. And Lewis’s brain took some punishment.
In all, Lewis estimates he suffered a minimum 10 concussions and went unconscious “two or three” times. He has no clue exactly how much damage he did to his brain.
Just like a knee injury, brain injuries can be treated if spotted immediately. But the lasting effects for those injuries are always going to be there. And the effects are usually worse the more times injuries occur.
Today, the powers that be in football (the NCAA and the NFL) are starting to understand that brain injuries are a problem and need to be treated immediately. It has also never been more widely understood, among fans and players, that the lasting consequences of multiple head injuries are serious.
It is, however, very obvious that leading a normal life can become hard to achieve when someone’s brain isn’t functioning the way they need it to. And in the case of many NFL players, they have football to blame for these debilitating issues.
The Love Of The Game Argument
There is no way to discuss head injuries in football without looking at the whole picture. The fact of the matter is, almost all of the players that have played either love the game or love the money that comes with it. Lewis is one that just loves the game, specifically, the feeling of being in control.
Most of all, Lewis simply loved having the ball in his hands 30 times a game. Loved staring down a defense and letting instinct take over. He viewed himself as a boxer in pads, jabbing and jabbing and jabbing you for three quarters before delivering a haymaker in the fourth. That feeling of running…and running…and never stopping. That feeling of control.
Football served as a platform for Lewis to do something that he loved, just as it has for many others.
It also served as a way to get out of a bad situation. Lewis goes in depth explaining that the neighborhood he grew up in was rough, and that football served as a way to reach a better life, both for himself and his family.
Going to the store, Lewis says, was “an adventure.” And at night, he’d often wake up to the sound of gunfire, of murder. You have two options in life here: sell drugs or join the military. That’s it, he assures. Nobody here could visualize hope outside of the drug lord cruising through town in a Mercedes…So he turned to football. So he built a monster. So he created a third option.
Lewis isn’t alone here either. Former stars Randy Moss, Michael Oher, Curtis Martin, and tons of others all used football as a way to reach a better life. Whether it worth the consequences, however, the answer probably varies by player.
Finally, it is clear that Lewis still wants the game to be in his life, as he is letting his son play.
— Jamal Lewis (@Jamal31Lewis) May 31, 2018
The most important part of any debate is to understand both sides of the argument, and there is certainly an argument both ways on this issue.
Ideally, we could live in a world where football didn’t do this to players’ brains. Ideally, Jamal Lewis could have the massively successful career he’s had without sacrificing the health of any of his major organs. Ideally, we could find a way to treat those that have already spent their lives injuring themselves for a game they love.
Unfortunately, we haven’t reached any of those ideals, yet.
What’s the best way to address this issue and achieve the above? I’m sure I’m close to the least qualified person to speculate on the answer, but I think the culture change going on right now is a good start.
For years, football players have been treated like gladiators. People that transcended human athleticism, that felt no pain, that never got injured. Bumped your head? Shake it off. Your knee hurts? Rub some dirt on it. You can’t move your shoulder? Take this medicine, you’ll feel better. Go watch Varsity Blues, Any Given Sunday, or Friday Night Lights if you don’t believe that’s been part of the culture for decades.
So when he tells this wave of stories, the black-out concussions, he does so with more terror than pride. The time Steve McNair’s voice woke him up against Denver and he returned a few plays later because “that’s the culture,” because “you’re a warrior.”
Now, there are people on sidelines of almost all football games at all levels, whose sole purpose of being there is to keep an eye out for signs of head injuries on the field. Protocols that must be cleared before a player can put on pads again. Treatment for major injuries has never been better. Players are now aware of the dangers of multiple head injuries and the consequences that could follow.
It’s a start.
I don’t know what the future of football holds or where concussions and CTE will lead the sport, but I do think that some major changes are probably on the horizon.
Meanwhile, Jamal Lewis, like many others that came before him and many that have come since, still loves football. He misses it. He wants his kids to play it. He pushed his body, and effectively his life, to the edge just because that’s the way he’s programmed. Not many people can identify with that, which is part of what makes NFL players so exceptional.
Lewis’s biggest issue with his current state seems to be he wasn’t made aware of what the consequences of his career could be.
“If I would’ve known this could affect you long term,” Lewis says, “I would at least have a choice.” Lewis’ mood shifts. He’s pissed now. His voice lowers to a rumble. “I’d have a choice.”
It doesn’t seem that his problem is with the game itself. The killer instinct that guided him through his career is apparent in how he’s raising his kids.
Lewis offers two more startling takes before leaving. Heck yeah, his boys will play football. Eight-year-old Jazz already has, and Dad half-jokes that he needs to get tagged. “Somebody needs to hit him,” he says. “Get him right!” And, given that “choice” again that he mentioned, what would he decide? He’d eyeball that Vikings safety taking a 45-degree angle, lower his shoulder and deliver a blow. No stepping out of bounds. No mercy.
Lewis hates the state his body is currently in, but doesn’t regret everything that got him there. This Bleacher Report article does a good job clarifying that the concussion problem in football isn’t as black and white as everyone wants it to be. Would Lewis have played football at the same level for the same amount of time if he had been made aware of the consequences earlier? Who knows? That’s the biggest question here.
Jamal Lewis’s situation perfectly encompasses the concussion conundrum.