By all accounts—his own, his teams’, and a top NFL-affiliated concussion specialist’s—Wes Welker is healthy and ready to play. St. Louis badly needs a receiver. Still, when the Rams announced they signed Welker to bolster their etiolated passing attack, my first reaction was disappointment. It’s a strange feeling, to hope that Wes Welker—a talented WR and by all accounts a decent guy—never plays football again.
It’s the concussions. At least six official ones in his career, maybe as many as 10. (That doesn’t count the ones he may not even know about.) He suffered three in nine months with the Broncos, leading one former teammate to publicly declare he wanted Welker to retire. The thing about concussions is that the more you’ve had, the more likely you are to receive more. Welker’s brain is especially fragile and vulnerable. If teams avoided signing the still-useful receiver this offseason solely because of his concussion history—and some very specifically did—it wasn’t necessarily just the potential bad PR in a sport that claims to take brain trauma very seriously. It was legitimate concern for Welker’s well-being.
But the Rams are desperate. Already struggling with the NFL’s single worst passing offense, St. Louis lost No. 3 WR Stedman Bailey to a four-game substance-abuse suspension. They worked out three receivers yesterday: Welker, Hakeem Nicks, and Vincent Brown. They signed Welker.
“He’s in outstanding shape, we saw that early this morning,” head coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s anxious and eager to play. He’s moved the chains for two potential Hall of Fame quarterbacks.”
While Nick Foles is not a third HOF QB, Welker will help, especially with the Rams’ NFL-worst third-down conversion rate. He’s exactly the guy to target on short crossing routes for medium yardage—even though that’s exactly what has resulted in so many brain injuries for the undersized Welker. He’s not effective if he can’t go over the middle, but going over the middle is what keeps putting him in the neurologist’s office. The Rams know the risk; Welker’s deal is heavy on incentives. If he can’t stay healthy, they won’t have to pay him.
The risk to Welker is greater. The best science can tell us—and it’s not much, not yet—is that each concussion will make him more likely to suffer diminished quality and length of his life after football. Does he know this? Intellectually, sure. But it’s maybe too much to ask of a 34-year-old to think about his life decades from now, especially when it’s about his livelihood now, and nothing is guaranteed. Maybe one more concussion won’t worsen things in 30 years. Maybe Welker will get lucky and suffer no ill effects after he retires. Maybe it’s already too late. There’s no way to know: the only question for Welker, here and now, is if he wants to keep playing football.
Who the hell am I to ask someone else to give up the only job they’ve ever known, when they’re still good at it and within a few years will be off the table forever? Why so much concern for Welker, who may be the most visible face of concussions, but none for the other couple thousand NFL players who are allowed to take varying degrees of the same risk every week without having their choices questioned? Is this sort of handwringing solely selfish on my part, meant to signify to myself and others that I’m an educated, conscientious consumer of a sport that does terrible things to bodies and brains, even as I consume it nonetheless and reward the NFL for its disposable-player model? Is caring about Wes Welker just about making myself feel better?
I don’t think it’s necessarily hypocritical to both watch football and care about concussions; there isn’t any aspect of life that doesn’t require some compartmentalization. But seeing Welker suit up makes me uncomfortable, because he’s a bright, blinking symbol of all the ignoring I’m doing the rest of the time. The truth is this: I don’t want Wes Welker to play because it makes me uncomfortable. That’s no good reason for him to hang it up. (I’d say Welker certainly has his own good reasons to hang it up, but that’s a personal value judgment for him to weigh.) So I’m left with wishes, none of which can come true. I wish Welker would retire. I wish the Rams wouldn’t have signed him. I wish this sport didn’t hurt the people who play it, or make me feel so bad sometimes about loving it.