Brett Favre, the iron-man quarterback from Green Bay who is one of my favorite NFL players, lost his father this past Sunday afternoon. Irvin Favre was driving in Mississippi when he had a massive heart attack that caused him to veer off the road. From all the reports, it appears as though Brett both loved and cherished his father. Yet, the day after his death, before his father was even buried, he chose to play as the starting quarterback in the Packers Monday-night football game against the Oakland Raiders.
To be sure, had he not played he would have broken his record, for he has not missed a single football game in more than 11 seasons, a remarkable achievement for a quarterback. Indeed, he holds the NFL record – 204 consecutive starts at quarterback. But that just made the possibility of honoring his father by not playing that much greater. People would have uttered in disbelief: “An injury couldn’t stop him, but honoring his dead father did. Wow, what a guy!”
Clearly, I think Brett made the wrong decision – a decision that was inconsistent with the fifth commandment. We are obligated to honor our parents in life and in death. And to put a football game before your father’s burial is misguided, even obscene. Brett should have been in Mississippi comforting, and being comforted by, his family.
It is, after all, only a football game, and one of the great problems in this country is how we elevate things like sports into quasi-religious status. What message does this send to the millions of young people who watched the game? Your father, who coached you in football in high school, just died, at the young age of just 58, only 24 hours before. But you’re just going to go on like nothing happened to play football? It didn’t shake you? It didn’t render you incapable of what is, when compared with issues of life and death, a frivolous pursuit?
Isn’t that why the NFL cancelled all the football games on the Sunday after Sept. 11, 2001. It would have dishonored the memories of those sacred martyrs. To be sure, he played a hell of a game – one of the greatest recent games in Monday night history, and even set a personal record for most yards passed in a first half – more than 300! But that makes this story even more puzzling. Is there any great virtue in being able to bury the immediate loss of a parent so deeply that one can have one’s greatest night on the gridiron?
Now, Brett is a wholesome American hero. I don’t want to increase his anguish at this difficult time by dumping on him. Indeed, I offer him my sincerest condolences. But since so much of America looks up to him as a hero, it would behoove him to treat his father as one as well. We rightly condemn sports heroes like Kobe Bryant when they do things that are disgusting and horrible. We say to them: “You’re a role model. You have a responsibility to act responsibly.”
Well, then we can’t let Brett off the hook, even though his actions are, of course, in no way comparable. But as a man whom kids look up to and admire, and in a country where rebellious kids are becoming the norm, he should have gone out of his way to show that his deceased father’s memory comes well before throwing a pigskin downfield for a touchdown.
When Bill Clinton’s beloved mother – Virginia Kelly – died, he made the same mistake, deciding not to cancel an important and long-scheduled European trip to meet with Boris Yeltsin and European leaders. But at least he waited until his mother was buried, but left immediately thereafter. He, too, could have honored his mother’s memory by canceling the trip and instituting even a day or two of mourning.
But there is something more. I think that Brett also made the wrong decision for himself. In the Jewish religion, there is a mandatory period of seven days of mourning after the loss of a parent that must be observed before the mourner can resume his or her normal life. This period, known as Shiva (seven), is often mistakenly understood as being a time to show respect for the dead. But this is erroneous.
While respecting our dead parents is observed through beautiful rituals like reciting the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, Shiva was instituted for the living. It is meant to serve as a period of time in which the surviving relatives can withdraw from commercial commitments and social involvement and come to terms with the loss, pain, and grief that they have experienced.
The fact that the bereaved has a time in which he or she does not have to be in the office smiling at coworkers or clients, or at the local store being pleasant to customers – which they, of course, do not feel on the inside – affords them an opportunity to heal, to recover from the shock of losing a loved one, and provides a vital psychological outlet for the loss.
I fear the repercussions on Brett in not being afforded this time – of having been devastated on the inside and still having to smile for the cameras, and reach his receivers on the outside. Psychologists will tell you that this kind of grief, when not afforded a healthy outlet early on, will usually manifest its dark symptoms much later on. One way or another, the repressed emotion and grief, which is not being given an legitimate outlet, won’t just simply go away.