In the week before Hamza and Husain spoke by phone to ThinkProgress, two former NFL players died — Joe McKnight at the age of 29, and Rashaan Salaam at 42. The news of both deaths shook them.
“You see a lot of players dying young, and not only are they dying young, they’re dying violent deaths,” Husain said. “Suicides, shootings, this is a huge issue.”
McKnight, a 29-year-old who played for both the New York Jets and the Chiefs, was murdered in broad daylight in New Orleans over what started as a road rage incident. Ronald Gaser, the man who shot and killed him, was initially released from police custody before being arrested on manslaughter charges a few days later. Husain, who was teammates with McKnight in Kansas City, took to Twitter to ask McKnight’s former employers in the NFL and his alma matter, the University of Southern California, to seek justice for the fallen player.
Four days later, Salaam, a former Heisman winner, committed suicide in Colorado. His brother later told reporters that Salaam suffered from depression, anxiety, apathy, and memory loss, all symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head that has recently been discovered in many deceased NFL players.
Salaam was a proud Muslim, and when Hamza and Husain were growing up, his success proved to them that their faith and football dreams weren’t mutually exclusive.
“Rashaan was a superhero to us,” Hamza said. “This hit me hard because of my personal experience with suicidal thoughts.”
Hamza and Husain know better than most that tomorrow is never guaranteed in the NFL, on or off the field. In fact, at times, football and death seem intrinsically linked.
That’s why they decided to skip the 2012 season to perform the Fifth Pillar of Islam — making a pilgrimage to Mecca — despite the fact that both had marquee years in 2011. Hamza saw two of his Denver Broncos teammates die in a six-week span after the 2005 season. Within his first three years in the league, Husain suffered four concussions over the course of 15 months, including one that ended his 2011 season prematurely.
So yes, taking a year off for this journey was a big risk, but it was one they had to take given the dangers of their job.
The years since have only justified that choice. Hamza has struggled mightily since the trip, dealing with depression while fighting the NFL for access to his benefits and meeting roadblock after roadblock while trying to jumpstart a second career. Husain, who played for three years with the Chiefs after the trip, decided to end his career this spring, after suffering his fifth concussion in 2015. He worried the next one could kill him.
Both men still love football despite all of their struggles on and off the field, but they want to see changes made — serious changes in how the league operates and treats its players — so that the sport stops being synonymous with suffering.
First of all, players need guaranteed contracts. This way, teams will have more motivation to properly treat players’ injuries and rehabilitate them, not just cut them at the first sign of trouble. As a result, players will feel more secure disclosing their injuries.
“Once you have guaranteed contracts, now I have no choice but to have your best interest in mind, you’re the best player and person you can be, because you’re going to be here,” Hamza said.
Hamza, left, and Husain, right. CREDIT: Instagram
Hamza also thinks the league needs to start providing its players with lifetime health insurance, and start addressing concussions as a health concern, not a public relations concern. Both brothers scoffed at the sideline tests that are given to athletes immediately after hard hits to determine whether or not they have a concussion. These tests are extremely easy to rig; Husain said players often know the questions the trainers are going to ask because they’re repeated every game. He recalled a trainer asking one of his teammates if he knew what day it was after suffering a bad hit to the head. The disoriented player looked around the stadium, noted that since he was playing football it was probably Sunday, and the trainer cleared him to return for the game.
Hamza said this band-aid approach is symptomatic of larger problems with the NFL.
“When we see them hurt, it shows us what was our honest little fun, it’s not so honest.”
“That’s not addressing the issue, that’s not treating an injury, that’s just making it so the public thinks we’re doing all we can. Football is family? It’s a lie, it’s a facade,” Hamza said. “As human beings, we’re bloodthirsty, but scared to admit it. We want power. It’s only when we see Luke Kuechly on the ground crying in pain that we say, ‘oh, we wanted blood but not death.’ When we see them hurt, it shows us what was our honest little fun, it’s not so honest.”
For Hamza, it comes down to the fact that every step of the way, the league treats its players like products, not people.
This is illuminated in one of the most haunting parts of Hamza’s memoir, when he describes his experience at the NFL combine, piling into a white van with dozens of other prospects.
The van looked as though it would be used for a bank robbery and set on fire later in the day. There were no smiles, handshakes, or salutations exchanged between anyone in the van. The mood was somber, as though we were going to an execution. An execution of our football careers. We arrived at the hotel next to the stadium and unloaded like a chain gang. We were all branded like cattle and shown to our cells.
It was more of a meat market where we were measured, weighed, and evaluated purely on our physical appearance. We were pieces of meat sold to the highest bidder. It was a modern day slave trade.
The current system has to be disrupted in order to find a way forward. That starts with players speaking up, like Hamza is doing in his book, and like Colin Kaepernick is doing with his national anthem protest. The Abdullah brothers are great admirers of Kaepernick’s stance against police brutality and racial oppression, and his willingness to take a stand and speak out — a willingness that has clearly rattled many NFL coaches and owners.
“This system has been built on the backs of players since its inception,” Hamza said. “It didn’t become a billion-dollar empire by allowing players to dictate and to think past football.”
But above all else, the Abdullah brothers believe that in order for the NFL to become a safer, more supportive place for athletes before, during, and after their careers, the league has to discover its humanity.
“Before you get to proper care and guaranteed contracts and running an ethical business, the very first thing is to be honest and say, we haven’t been doing the right thing, doing right by these people, we have issues and we have information and we’ve been sweeping it under the rug,” Husain said.
“I think the very first thing is telling the truth.”