I've always been a sports fan, and watching football has been one of my favorite pastimes. Over the last few years, however, it's been a guilty please at best and, maybe, hypocrisy at its worst. A few years ago, I attended a presentation on brain injuries that woke me up to the cost football players pay to entertain fans like me. PBS's Frontline series went even deeper into the issue, showing how pervasive brain injuries are for professional football players. The news has not gotten better.
On Thursday, a 17 year old football player, at Chicago's Bogan High School, Andre Smith, died after a game. He was the seventh high school player to die in the U.S. this season. At first, it was reported that he was injured on the last play of the game, but, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, he walked off the field and collapsed as he was leaving the field. No one knows the exact cause of death, and there will be an autopsy next week. Here's what we do know: He died playing football.
Is football so dangerous that it should be made illegal? Once upon a time, I scoffed at this question. There is risk in everything we do. Players willingly participate in the sport, which they know is dangerous. I've used all of those reasons to convince myself that football is the same as basketball and baseball. It's a game. But something interesting happens when we compare football and hockey. It is possible to play a much less violent version of hockey than we see in the NHL. Fighting is banned in the international game. Checking is limited or banned in many leagues. Unless you're playing some kind of touch or flag version of the game, football is all about violence, hitting another person with your body and knocking them to the ground. Fans like me often cheer loud when both the offensive and defensive player collide at full speed. Violent hits make us cheers, and we do not ask the question: What is happening to their brains and bodies when such collisions occur?
This blog is about career and work issues, and whether they are amateur or professional athletes, football players work very hard at what they do. They practice, lift weights, and eat special diets to maintain a certain weight. They learn complicated plays and signals that are called out before each play. Paid or unpaid, their work needs to be taken the same way we consider other workplace or work-like recreational activities. Is this game too violent however it is played? Tomorrow I am meeting two friends to watch the Carolina Panthers play the Philadelphia Eagles. We meet several times over the course of the season, but it's getting harder for me to watch football given what we now know about the price paid by those who play the game, those who are working for our pleasure. Andre Smith's death has made me question my complicity as a fan. Is it time to turn off football?
P.S. DNAInfo reports that Andre's Smith's autopsy has been completed. It found that he died of football related injuries, "blunt force trauma" to his head.
Deadspin has linked to a report from the Tampa Bay Times, which has conducted an investigation on a church that uses its flock as indentured servants. According to the report, New Beginnings takes in homeless people and addicts, confiscates their government aid, and makes them work at menial jobs for their keep. Some of their assignments include working concessions for local pro sports teams. The NFL, MLB, and NHL are not directly involved, but these organizations and team owners need to look into this matter. I’ve written before about wage theft, which is horrible. At least those employees are free to work at another job. In this case, it seems that an alleged church has ignored both legal and moral condemnations of such behavior.
[“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.