Bears safety Chris Conte has had several injuries this year, including two concussions. He didn't play Monday night against the Saints because of a back injury. When asked about his willingness to play through injuries before the game, he offered some thoughts:
"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," he said. "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."
"I'm not saying I'm going to go die when I'm 45, 50," he said. "I'm fortunate to go out and play football."
Conte is certainly entitled to make his own life decisions and take his own risks. He's an of-age adult who is enjoying his career right now, and I'm happy for him. He might regret his thinking later in life, but he might also live out his years thrilled with his decision-making. That is how risks work.
Conte may be nonchalant about his own future, but what he said is dangerous. He's an NFL player and other people are listening. And what he said misconstrues the nature of player safety in a few important ways.
1. Concussions don't just cause football players to die 10-15 years earlier
Conte sounds like he's saying concussions cause the end of a human life to move up a decade or so, just snipping short a regular life. This isn't exactly the case.
CTE doesn't just cause your heart or some other vital organ to stop working as it should a tad earlier. CTE cripples its victims with dementia and depression, in many cases to the point where they decide to kill themselves. This death often occurs significantly earlier than 10-15 years before a normal life expectancy would dictate.
Conte's statement makes it sound like playing football and getting a lot of concussions will lead to a shorter, but happier life. That doesn't sound consistent with what we know about the last years of football players with CTE-riddled brains who took their own lives.
A lot of people would probably trade elderly years for youthful glory. I suspect fewer would sign up to deal with the horrors ex-football players who died young experienced.
2. Playing football and living a lengthy life shouldn't be an either/or proposition
Conte seems to be implying that by becoming a football player, he is accepting a shorter life. That's horrifying and pessimistic, but it's also dangerous. It implies that there's nothing a player can do once they've decided to play football.
So far as we know, a football player who sits out after concussions has a much better chance than a football player who rushes back to play after concussions. If football players think "well, I'm already dying young, what's the difference," they're actively putting themselves at more risk than they deserve. And yet the mindset that football players should try to get back out there after brain injuries because they've committed to becoming fearless worries persists.
If we love football and we want football to continue existing, we have to ensure it becomes safer. And ensuring people don't think the way Conte thinks is part of that.