Sabbath, December 18, 2011

Posted December 18, 2011
By Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that ponders work and life.]

Sidney Crosby’s Workplace Injury

Sidney Crosby is only 24 years old, and he is acknowledged as one of the best players in hockey today.  The tragedy is that Crosby missed half of last season because of post-concussive symptoms.  After returning to the ice this year, he is again on the disabled list because of this condition. 

Writing in Grantland, Ken Dryden takes on this problem with the broad intelligence that marks all of his writing.  Dryden addresses NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and challenges him to deal with the problem, especially the sport’s macho, fight-based culture.  My issue with Dryden’s wonderful analysis is that he diagnoses a sickness but suggests no cure.  I also have no solution.  In sports like hockey and football, played by large men traveling at fast speeds, there will be collisions that result in head injuries.  What can we do?

The NFL has taken some steps to protect players and limit concussions.  Blows to the head are penalized and fined.  “Launching” to make a tackle has pretty much been taken out of the game.  But many football and hockey players still incur head injuries.  Colt McCoy, quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, received a head-to-head shot from Steelers linebacker James Harrison.  He told the medical staff that his hand was injured, and he was allowed to go back in the game.  Only after the game did the doctors and trainers discover that McCoy had suffered a concussion.

We need to look at this problem from another perspective:  workplace injuries.  If a meat processing plant was found to have several workers receiving serious cuts, OSHA would be on the scene.  Professional athletes are working people.  They have short careers and often spend the rest of their lives dealing with pain and disability caused by their sport.  It’s one thing to see a ex-player like Mike Ditka walk with a limp because of injuries sustained on the field.  It’s another to consider the last days of Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, and Mike Webster, all of whom suffered from post-concussive conditions and died horrible deaths, Duerson and Waters committing suicide.

Attitudes need to change on several fronts.  As Dryden argues, league presidents and owners need to address the problem more forcefully. Players and their unions need to be realistic about the impact of these injuries.  It’s one thing to need a knee replacement in your 40s or 50s.  There is no cure for dementia.  Fans might have to make the biggest change.  Like millions of other sports fans, I have spent most of my life cheering the big hit.  Stadiums roar when a tackler crushes a wide receiver or running back.  Then they go silent when a player lies limp on the field.  We live in two worlds: loving the hit and hating its aftermath.  We need to think more about the people working on the field and the lives they live when their uniform comes off.

Will Sidney Crosby play hockey again?  As a fan, I hope so.  I once saw Crosby push the puck between the legs of a defender and then put two moves on a goalie before flicking the puck into the goal.  It took two seconds, and it was beautiful.  But, as someone who cares about working people, I hope Crosby does what is best for his health and future.  More than that, I hope that league officials, owners, players, and fans get serious about addressing the problem of concussions.  The games we love might see great changes, but the result will be worth it:  healthy players living longer lives.