On Jeanne Marie Laskas’ “The People V. Football” (GQ, March 2011)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: Former Vikings star linebacker Fred McNeill is suffering from what doctors have begun calling chronic traumatic encephalopathy—the result of taking too many hits to the brain. Too many concussions.  Jeanne Marie Laskas spent time with him and his family, and she paints a sullen picture of a former star slowly losing his mind.

In a lot of her work, Jeanne Marie Laskas has a tone that is often deplete of any dramatics, despite the serious topics at hand: the troubles of migrant workers, dangerous jobs, and here, the early onset of dementia. It treads lightly on heavy things and is informal in formal settings—but not in a way that undermines the seriousness. Her tone brings us closer to the story because she writes in a way that is closest to how her characters communicate with one another. Her lead:

 She had no idea, back then, that he was sick. She had no idea he was losing his mind. Something neurological, the doctors are now saying, some kind of sludge blocking pathways in his brain. Would it have made a difference if she knew? Of course it would have. But you can’t think like that. And you can’t give a shit about people whispering behind your back. You hear about Fred McNeill? Star linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings back in the ’70s and ’80s. Ended up going crazy, and his wife, Tia, couldn’t handle it, so she walked out. It’s not like that, not even close, but whatever. People can think what they think.

Going hand-in-hand with her informal tone is her fleeting use of second person, which also seems to mirror the way her subjects—and most of us—talk to each other.

But the strongest element in this story was Laskas’ use of dialogue. She both opens and closes with a long string between Fred and his wife, Tia. It’s prominent during Fred’s doctors’ visit and also in one of Laskas’ macro sections, in which two Monday Night Football telecasters go back and forth regarding the NFL’s stance on preventing brain injury. All of these seem to contain the most poignant messages, and while Laskas never herself takes a stance on what should be done about this growing problem among pro football players, the scenes she highlights in extended conversations help us to easily grasp the stakes. (It also helps that the research that’s out there is pretty indisputable. A favorite line: “Even worse for the NFL, the league had commissioned that survey, which was designed simply to gather data about retired players. It was like Big Tobacco ordering a study that ended up showing that smokers got cancer.”)

 Though her dialogue scenes are often long, the length allows us to be immersed in them. In the first scene, she lets us sit with her and Tia in the car outside Fred’s apartment, as Fred tries to complete the simple task of coming downstairs and into the car in a timely fashion.

 “Are you coming down? I’m waiting.” “You’re waiting?” “Fred, I’m out here waiting!” “Oh, okay, I’ll come down.” “Don’t forget the suitcase,” she says. “Suitcase?” “Remember I need my suitcase back?” He does not remember anything about a suitcase. “Fred, I just told you ten minutes ago that I am outside waiting for you and to bring me the suitcase,” she says. “It’s too early for karaoke,” he says.

We feel Tia’s frustration as this drags on. This sad illustration of the present-day Fred leads Laskas to transition into the Fred he used to be—an effective, stark contrast that is condensed into a few short sentences beginning, “There was a time when Fred was brilliant.” The paragraph concludes with another few sentences that explain how everything slowly fell apart. Notable is that this entire condensed life story is placed in the middle of the long scene of Fred forgetting to bring a suitcase down to the car.

While there is a comical component to scenes like this—due to some of Fred’s outlandish arguments—there’s a kind of read-between-the-lines effect happening: In these drawn-out scenes of Tia trying to engage in a normal conversation with her nonsensical husband, we can really see the extent of the NFL’s most pressing problem—regardless of what numbers can show.

Two other must-reads from Laskas: “Have You Heard the One About President Joe Biden?” and “Oops, You Just Hired the Wrong Hitman.”