What "Sweetness" Means for Retired NFL Players, and Why We Care

Brendan O'Hare@brendohareContributor ISeptember 29, 2011

21 May 1999: Walter Payton #34 of the Chicago Bears shakes hands with fans before a game against the Green Bay Packers in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jeff Pearlman's Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton hits shelves Oct. 4, but the necessary hysteria at concealed indiscretions have already made Pearlman's book into this year's Open.

Like Open, Sweetness appears (at least according to the extensive excerpt Sports Illustrated has featured this week) to tell tales of Payton's odd drug use and his troubles at home.

More specifically, Sweetness leaks the details of an extremely private man's life into the public domain, weaving tales of suicidal thoughts, painkillers and garage-kept nitrous oxide tanks, and a fascinating tale of how his wife (estranged at the time) and mistress simultaneously attended his Hall of Fame speech.

Of course, the holy trinity of suicide, drugs, and sex led to Pearlman's book being featured in SI (just as Open was), and likely the book is much more than an accentuation of exposing a purposely clandestine man for "who he really was."

Pearlman is a great writer (I've spoken to him on a few occasions through email, and he is really one of the better reporters we have today), but why did he feel inclined to expose such details about Payton? And more importantly, why do we care so much?

And you know we will care, and turn this book into a New York Times bestseller in the process. Just as Open became a No. 1 hit due to anecdotes of meth use and daddy issues, Sweetness will probably see the same fate due to the same circumstances that distances itself from other biographies that don't have the star caliber/shocking exposes.

Pearlman has a journalistic obligation to include such details, as it was apparently a major aspect of his life. If he didn't add those details, Sweetness would be a boring, elongated book about a secluded superstar, similar to any autobiography about J.D. Salinger.

At the same time, Pearlman must realize that these revelations are what is going to give the book attention. But why should we care about a grown man's troubles, especially one who died 12 years ago?

It is our cyclical attention span, and we will throw this story in to our personal vaults as soon as we find a story that is even more salacious (Open, at least from a controversial standpoint, didn't last too long in the public eye).

But we shouldn't get rid of this story. OK, maybe we can get rid of Payton's troubles at home, but special attention needs to be paid to his suicidal thoughts and his impulses for drug cocktails and his need for nitrous oxide tanks at home, desiring for highs that little kids usually attempt when they inhale balloons at their 5th birthday party. Payton, as we all know, died from a rare cancer in 1999, but it appears his life was in shambles medically even before that.

Payton relied upon deceiving medical professionals into giving him drugs to heal pains he suffered during his football career, and likely received little to no help from the NFL. The number of former NFL players who blast their heads off due to injuries suffered from playing football rises every year, and nothing ever happens.

Can Payton's suicidal thoughts, obviously brought upon from a decade of head-first hits and lackluster medical benefits, be the trigger that sparks some kind of public forum to get the NFL to give two shits about their retired players?

Payton is one of the most notable players in NFL history, and the fact that it appears little help was given to him by his former employer is pretty eye-opening. The waning years of Payton's life seem horrible, and for him, probably overshadowed all of his accomplishments in the NFL.

He took pills during his playing days, a victim of the shoddy care given to players during those days. That is almost excusable, due to the lack of medical knowledge we had. But by the 1990's, we knew about concussions. But it didn't end. Retired players began to take their own lives as the game got faster and stronger, and the NFL didn't "notice."

Perhaps Sweetness can begin some sort of movement to get the NFL to give more benefits to retired players, especially the older ones. We can only hope, or football is going to appear barbaric in less than a decade.