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But these players went to war for our entertainment, took brutal risks. Don't we—doesn't somebody—owe them for all our weekly whoops and fantasies, for the cost of what has become our national religion? Perhaps a small percentage of ticket revenue, TV money or even astronomical profits from selling a franchise—the going rate is nearly a billion dollars—should be set aside to cover the players' wreckage. Or is their pain their karma, the harvest of personal obsessions that drove them into the arena?
Couldn't Upshaw and the ghosts, I asked, lead such a debate? Couldn't they sit down together and acknowledge the game's shadow side—the fears, vulnerability and pain that its broken vets carry—so that the exorcism could begin?
They looked at me as if I'd taken one late hit too many.
THE SUPER BOWL was drawing near. I could guess what would happen. The NFL, having suffered plenty of collateral damage from the ghosts' salvos, had recently joined with the union to form a new group, the Alliance, to alleviate some of the misery. Upshaw, at his annual Super Bowl press conference, would extol the glowing health of his union and point to these new attempts to help the wounded vets, including a fund to cover joint replacements and a streamlining of the disability process.
The ghosts would hold their own Super Bowl press conference, under the auspices of Gridiron Greats. They'd auction off golf, poker and party time with the old pros to raise money for their casualties, and howl that the latest improvements are swell, but c'mon, the whole system needs overhauling.
The war would go on. Two ticking bombs—the increasing awareness of concussions' toxic long-term effects and the alarming rise of obesity among linemen—could make it more vicious still.
Hall of Fame Bears running back Gayle Sayers would attend the ghosts' press conference. He might not howl. He'd likely just keep killing Upshaw and the NFL softly, reminding everyone, "This is not how a family works."
Then Sunday would come, and my family would gather in front of the TV when the hitting started at 6:18 sharp. I wondered if I'd turn up the volume.