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Two Stories, One Reason: Why An Actor And An Athlete Refuse To Support Football

NFL rookie Chris Borland quits after one season, and an actor declines an offer to be the voice of the sport.  Pictured: Borland, playing for the San Francisco 49ers, runs an interception back for a touchdown past Houston Texans' Uzoma Nwachukwu during the third quarter of an NFL football preseason game Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, in Houston. (Patric Schneider/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
NFL rookie Chris Borland quits after one season, and an actor declines an offer to be the voice of the sport. Pictured: Borland, playing for the San Francisco 49ers, runs an interception back for a touchdown past Houston Texans' Uzoma Nwachukwu during the third quarter of an NFL football preseason game Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, in Houston. (Patric Schneider/AP)

We were laughing too hard to speak, gut-laughing, the best kind, a rarity since our son died 10 years ago. Still, the laughter had a rueful tinge. My husband’s agent had just called with an offer: would he speak to a group of executives in Texas about how football had inspired him in his life?

My husband is an actor. You may or may not recognize him. He is a chameleon in his roles; people who notice him on the street often think they went to high school with him or saw him last Monday at the town dump recycling his plastics. He’s played a lot of Texans, and his forebears came from that state — his great-grandfather even surveyed Dallas before it was Dallas — but he grew up in the Midwest. He’s played a lot of hard guys, too, in his film career. But that was acting, i.e., his job, not his real life. Maybe all those tough guys and military men bespeak “football” to people. I really don’t get it. My husband was a pole vaulter in high school and ran track. Both of those are solo sports which I am sure served as the appeal to my loner spouse.

the last time my husband was asked to do a voiceover, the end of the copy read 'we’re making football safer.' He refused.

As for football as inspiration, my husband has no clue which team is playing in the Super Bowl any given year. He doesn’t watch football, or any team sport, except baseball during the World Series, if the Red Sox or the Kansas City Royals are playing. To me, this makes him a man more precious than rubies. That, and the fact that he can walk our two rescue bichons without having his masculinity threatened by proximity to fluffy little white dogs. He is a real man, in the way of my tender father and his brothers, Italian immigrants built like linebackers who kissed each other on the lips at family gatherings, who wept openly when they recalled their dead, who nursed injured animals back to health and believed in a woman’s sovereign right over her own body.

My husband did belong to a team, once: Team Jesse. He and our son were the only males on the team; the rest were devoted women: teachers, caregivers and, like myself, warrior mothers. We did, at times, feel like we were banging our heads — not against each other’s, pointlessly, like elks in heat, or men on a gridiron — but against a wall of naysayers who couldn’t see the light within our son. We had to sue our public school to get our son his basic civil right: a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

Born 10 weeks early, Jesse suffered a grade IV cerebral hemorrhage on the third day of his life. He was nonverbal, quadriplegic and, in spite of his brain injury, brilliant. He would never spike a ball in the end zone, but he would write poetry that was the definition of inspiration. He would never run, not even a yard, but to watch the Herculean effort it took him to tame his wandering arm and pull the switch on his computer was to see a lionheart at work. We, the members of Team Jesse, cheered him from the sidelines with all the manic fervor of those face-painted football fans. Our son didn’t win games, he won the hearts and minds of those around him, his classmates, his teachers, his friends, whose lives were forever changed because they knew him.

This latest request wasn’t the first my husband had received around the particular sport of football. A few years ago, he was asked to do a voiceover celebrating some big anniversary for the NFL. He had done one before, a starry-eyed gurgle about the league’s draft. The copy for that piece was so rhapsodic, it could have rivaled any Saturday morning ad pushing My Little Pony products on school-age girls. The money from that gig went to the foundation we had set up in honor of our son. It’s small and mostly local and helps low-income families hire advocates so their children can be included at school. It also helps AccesSportAmerica, a national non-profit that offers adapted sports for people with disabilities. Our son spent many hours blissfully windsurfing and tubing because of this wonderful organization.

But the last time my husband was asked to do a voiceover, the end of the copy read “we’re making football safer.” He refused. Because football doesn’t look to us like it’s getting safer. In fact, he had just read a proposed script about the forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born doctor who first flagged the condition of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. Omalu wrote about his findings in 2005, in the medical journal Neurosurgery, suggesting that football caused irreversible brain damage. He received death threats. Since then, there has been a tsunami of evidence that the violence of football and other head-crashing sports causes irreversible brain damage.

I think the game is inherently dangerous.

Chris Borland

Just last week Chris Borland, rookie linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, quit after one season, citing the risks of playing a violent game that has unknown effects on the brain. In an interview, Charlie Rose asked Borland about what changes could make football safe. Borland replied: "Brevity might be a good idea, just playing a smaller amount of time. But no, I think the game is inherently dangerous."

It would be a cruel joke to sponsor something that causes the condition that made our son’s life such a challenge. His damage was physical, not cognitive, but the hurdles he faced were similar and devastating. So, we laugh when offers like this come in, we laugh, and for the moment, the laughter overcomes the pain of what really lies beneath the absurdity of asking someone to sponsor a sport that puts families in a similar situation to the one we dealt with for 17 years. We would have dealt with the effects gladly, for many years into our old age, because we adored our son. And we didn’t have to live with the thought that our son's condition was the result of being injured in the pursuit of entertainment for millions. Because that’s not funny, not at all.

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Marianne Leone Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Marianne Leone is an actress, screenwriter and essayist. She is the author of "Jesse, A Mother's Story Of Grief And Everyday Bliss" and "Ma Speaks Up" is from Beacon Press.

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