Jerry Seinfeld has an old riff about motorcycles, helmets and the human instinct to refuse mortality.
"There are many things, that you can point to, that humans, are not smart. But my personal favorite would have to be, that we had to invent the helmet. What was happening, apparently, is that we were involved in a lot of activities that were cracking our heads. We chose not to avoid these activities but instead come up with some sort of device to help us to continue to enjoy, our headcracking lifestyle: The helmet. Even that didn't work, because enough people weren't wearing them, so we had to come up with the helmet law, which is even stupider because the idea behind the helmet law is to preserve a brain who's judgment is so poor that it doesn't even try to prevent the cracking of the head it's in."
Yesterday, Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte gave an interview to WBBM Radio in Chicago. Conte has struggled with injuries all season, finishing only seven of the 12 games he has started, though saying a football player "struggles with injuries" is sort of like saying a human being "struggles with the potential existence of a higher power that would give some sort of meaning into our seemingly random lives." It's all baked into the experience.
Conte has dealt with a shoulder issue, a back issue, an eye issue and two concussions this year. He keeps fighting to get back out onto the field. Here's what he told WBBM:
I'd rather have the experience of playing in the NFL and die 10-to-15 years earlier than not play in the NFL and have a long life. I don't really look toward my life after football. I'll figure things out when I get there. As long as I outlive my parents.
For what it's worth, for all the pushback this answer has inspired, the people who should be most offended: Conte's parents! They go through all the trouble of raising the kid, and what do they get for it? Hope you die before me, Mom and Dad! Hey, thanks, pal. What a wonderful reward for the selfless sacrifice of parenthood: Your child not only cheering for your death, but actually considering those deaths a vindication of his own life. As long as I beat you!
Kidding aside, the comments generally fly in the face of the way we tend to talk about athlete safety these days. This is worth unpacking.
There is a certain infantilization in the way we discuss athletes, and the way we believe that we understand better than they do what they're doing with their bodies. When Chris Conte says something like this, we tsk-tsk him, tell him that he doesn't get it, that he can't see the whole picture ... that he has no perspective. Chris Conte is 25 years old, which is absurdly young to have damaged his body as much as he has. But he is still a grown adult who has the right to make his own decisions, and to talk about those decisions in a grown adult way.
We cannot understand what it means to be an NFL player. We can guess, we can imagine what we would do if we were there, we can opine on what NFL players should be thinking. But we cannot understand the level of sacrifice, the level of commitment, the level of dedication, that it requires to play this sport at the highest level.
Like thousands of football players before him, all Chris Conte knows is football: It has been the single organizing principle of his life since as long as he has known what life is. The idea that he is supposed to dial that back, that he is supposed to walk away from the game, or not play it, is antithetical to every personality trait that pushed Conte and men like him into the league in the first place. If Chris Conte didn't want to play through every injury, if Chris Conte didn't think he was immortal, he wouldn't be in the NFL. Asking him to behave otherwise, acting as if he should behave otherwise, is like asking a dog to juggle. It is the opposite of his nature.
And this is his right. We forget this. Chris Conte may feel differently about all this in 15 years -- and Chris, trust me, 15 years pass a lot faster than you think -- but right now, he actually is playing. Any former athlete will tell you that their athletic career, something that's often 50 or 60 years in the past, is the defining aspect of their life: They can do so many more, important things in their lives after they retire, but the vast majority of people they come across still will only think of them primarily as an athlete. (Imagine how exhausting it must be to spend most of your time talking about things you did six decades ago.)
Players like Conte are willing to sacrifice the future because they know that what happens now really does matter more than what happens then. It will define them. Chris Conte could discover a cure for rickets in 30 years, and we will still all think of him first as a football player. And so will he. Asking him to dial down from that is asking him not to be human.
To criticize Conte is to miss the point. The call to action should be on us. Chris Conte is going to be like every other football player in this situation: He's going to want to play. What we need to do is to make sure he doesn't regret it. "I'm not saying I'm going to go die when I'm 45, 50," he says, but, of course, many football players, particularly those with multiple concussions, don't actually make it that far. Hundreds of retired athletes would have said the exact same thing as Conte when they were 25, even if, especially if, they know so differently now.
The benefits of playing in the NFL, as a young person, as an indestructible one, are too enticing to expect anyone not to embrace them fully. You are not going to be able to change the behavior. You are not going to de-incentivize the behavior. You are not going to make them quit. Particularly when you are bankrolling it.
So you have to give the motorcycle rider the helmet: You have to make him wear it. Chris Conte is willing to destroy himself for the game he loves. This is not his fault: It is ours.