National pastime

There was no debate over gun control when Sahel Kazemi shot Steve McNair in the head. No one asked for evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy after she committed suicide, or attributed the whole thing to post-concussion syndrome. Things just happen, people said. Jealousy. Rage. Passion. Men. Women. This was four summers ago.

Now? You and me and Jovan and Kasandra. The momentary and the irrevocable, the NFL and America, CTE and PCS, the kiss and the gun.

The rush to make meaning.

Like my colleagues, I spent part of the week trying to stitch up some cause and effect. I could not. There's no evidence yet, only guesswork. Maybe when the scans and the toxicology panels come back. Maybe not. Maybe never.

So I thought for a long time instead about the nature of football and the nature of violence and human nature. About guilt and complicity. I got as far as war and football and the elaborate contraptions we build to help veterans of both. Hotlines and helplines and support groups, insurance pools and orphans' funds and halls of fame -- all because noncombatants like you and me know there's a price to be paid for their service. We just keep forgetting what it is.

Higher rates of suicide? Homicide? Domestic violence? Alcoholism? Chemical dependency? Dementia? Destitution?

All of the above. None of the above. Some of the above. Real heroes or cheap athletic symbols, the statistics will do whatever you want them to, including point only to what you think you already know.

Which partisan argument are you trying to make? You'll succeed. Guns are the culprit? Guns could've saved her. The NFL is America's most beloved entertainment? The NFL is a slaughterhouse.

How we struggle with the truth of things.

There's an outreach website meant for ex-NFL players. Find it here. It's a catalog of the traps and mazes of a life in and out of football, and some well-meant advice against what can and will go wrong. Under the heading "Depression" it says "The suicide rate among former NFL players is nearly six times the national average." It offers no source or explanation for that number, nor does the site's owner, a former NFL player, when I call. Ken Ruettgers and I talked Wednesday night for a long time about football and violence and chaos and order and he couldn't remember where or how that statistic came to him. That sentence, never questioned, has been quoted again and again this week. Does it even matter if it's true? Or does the fact we take it at face value as the price of our favorite game say what most needs saying?

From time to time it might be important to ask, what are sports for? In part for this -- for symbolism and argument and catharsis, for sadness and joy, for stories and warnings, for heroes and villains, for for and against, for counting the cost, for the debate over violence and guns and how we waste our young men, for taking up the cause of young women and for saying no and saying yes and asking "why?" To help us measure out what we owe one another. Because if you're not part of the solution, we tell ourselves, you're part of the problem.

Scratch that. We're all part of the problem. We summon violence and weep with shock and surprise when it can't be controlled. We've sacrificed our sons and daughters to it since the beginning of time. We continue to do so.

The only thing more heartbreaking might be our hypocrisy, and the uselessness of our good intentions.