Commentary

Football's do-good side

Updated: May 8, 2012, 12:40 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

The tragic death of Junior Seau is beginning to feel like a watershed moment.

Certainly the violent nature of the NFL had been discussed and debated prior to Seau's death, but his suicide resonated so deeply that there is some real doubt about whether the NFL has a future.

[+] EnlargeMyron Rolle
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesMyron Rolle knows the impact football has had on his life.

Kurt Warner heightened the conversation last week when he admitted the idea of his sons playing football frightened him.

"They both have the dream, like dad, to play in the NFL," Warner said during an interview on Dan Patrick's radio show. "Thatís their goal. And when you hear things like the bounties, when you know certain things having played the game, and then obviously when you understand the size, the speed, the violence of the game, and then you couple that with situations like Junior Seau -- was that a ramification of all the years playing? And things that go with that. It scares me as a dad."

Warner has since softened his stance, but it seems as if a lot of time has been spent talking about what the game of football takes away from players.

But what about what the game gives them?

Football has saved some players' lives, giving them a path out of difficult circumstances. The game has shaped many players into better men. And beyond football granting some of them extraordinary wealth, football has put many players in the position to change other people's lives.

If it weren't for football, former Florida State football standout Myron Rolle wouldn't have made national news for choosing to skip his senior season to study at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

Without the publicity he received just for his football ability, maybe Rolle wouldn't have received the Rhodes scholarship at all.

If it weren't for football, Rolle wouldn't have been able to start his own foundation and eventually secure $100,000 from the state of Florida for his annual wellness and leadership academy for foster children.

"Absolutely not," said Rolle, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in January. "Football has provided a huge platform for me to advocate some of the issues that are pertinent to my belief system."

Rolle was a brilliant student, but there isn't any question football has helped Rolle infiltrate some influential circles. Rolle traveled with former president Bill Clinton to the Congo on a humanitarian mission in July. Jesse Jackson has said he sees Rolle as this generation's leader.

Rolle hopes to some day build a free medical clinic in the Bahamas, where his family is from.

Football could make that happen.

"Football is being demonized because a part of the game has some adverse effects on health," Rolle said, "but the positives of football, they are invaluable. I learned so many different life lessons from football."

This isn't an attempt to sugarcoat what's happened to some former NFL players, or overlook the fact the league is facing a massive lawsuit filed by more than 100 former players, who allege the NFL didn't do enough to protect them from concussions.

While that represents the ugly side of NFL life, it is just one side. Warner's concerns as a parent are understandable, but even he acknowledged that playing in the NFL has afforded him opportunities and a platform that he would never have received elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
Kevin Mazur/Getty ImagesKurt Warner isn't afraid of the debate about football or of using the platform it has given him.

Warner, who was bagging groceries before he caught on in the NFL, is a devout Christian and being an NFL quarterback has made it easier for Warner to promote his religious beliefs. He and his wife, Brenda, created the First Things First foundation which, Warner wrote on the foundation's website, "started with a vision sparked by a magical year in 1999 when my lifelong dream of success in the NFL became a reality."

Tim Tebow has been using football to promote his faith since high school. Since arriving in the NFL, he's had a bestselling book and on Easter Sunday he delivered a faith-based message to thousands of people.

Rolle, Tebow and Warner may be among the most visible examples of athletes using football to spread an inspiring message, but there are countless examples of players who use football to uplift and build communities.

As unfortunate as Seau's death was, it already is starting important discussions about mental health issues. Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall was inspired to write an eloquent Op-Ed piece in the Chicago Sun Times about his own treatment for mental health problems and also plead with athletes who are struggling with coping to drop the macho facade and seek help.

The Saints' bounty scandal was abhorrent, but those aren't the values that football reinforces on a consistent basis. It's a sport that regularly preaches togetherness, perseverance, teamwork, leadership and accountability.

If I had a son, I would want him to play football.

The game does indeed take a toll, both physically and emotionally. But it gives a lot back, too.

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine