Wes Welker, the 34-year-old wide receiver who has been on the receiving end of numerous concussions (6 or 10 or more, depending on whom you ask), is returning to football to help shore up an anemic St. Louis Rams offense. As Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky notes, this is a cringe-worthy development for fans who appreciate Welker as a player and want him to do well, but who understand the risk to which he’s exposing himself by getting back on the gridiron after such a long and violent career, given what we know about the terrifying effects concussions have on pro football players later in their lives.
It’s interesting to put Welker’s decision in the context of the choices we, the non-famous and nonathletic, make all the time. Sure, in Welker’s case the choice seems particularly stark because of all the recent attention the NFL’s concussion crisis has garnered, including tragic instances of suicides by former players likely linked to the concussions they suffered on the field. But overall, the question Welker had to answer — Should I do something that will offer me enjoyment today but might bring negative consequences in the long run? — is something everybody grapples with, as Science of Us’s Melissa Dahl has noted in her great work on the concept of “future you.” (I’m leaving money out of the Welker equation, given that after what has already been a very lengthy career by NFL standards, he’s likely all set in that regard.) In fact, a central reason public-health campaigns fail so often is that people don’t usually respond to cold, numerical information informing them that a certain behavior puts them at a risk of developing certain problems in the future — future you is way out there, barely visible, while present you wants that cupcake.
And the fact is that a lot of these questions don’t really have clear answers. Usually the risks are smaller and harder to track than the ones Welker’s dealing with. Would you trade a year at the end of your life for your five-slices-a-week pizza habit, if that’s what it came down to? Half a year for the occasional cigarette puffed drunkenly at a party? A few years for the job that pays well but leaves you getting four hours of sleep a night? It’s so hard for us to imagine the future, or really to even fully grasp the randomness inherent in the concept itself, that it’s no wonder we lack the vocabulary to talk about the long-term trade-offs we make every day.