[On Sundays, Career Calling looks beyond jobs and career in “Sabbath.”]
Can Football Survive?
Last week I attended a panel discussion on football and head injuries that was sponsored by the Chicagoside sport website. Panelists included Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander, former Chicago Bear Hunter Hillenmeyer, former Harvard football player and professional wrestler Chistopher Nowitzki, and film producer Steve James. Nowitzki and James have collaborated in creating a documentary film called Head Games that examines head injuries in several sports.
All of the panelists expressed a sense of conflict. They are football fans who understand the damage caused to those who play the game. Hillenmeyer summed up the problem by telling his own story. Over the course of his NFL career, the former Bears’ linebacker was diagnosed with 5 concussion, including the last one that ended his career. However, according to some experts he has met, Hillenmeyer may have experienced hundreds of concussions. Part of the problem is defining what a concussion is. The damage caused by head injuries can only be diagnosed after a person is dead. We know there is a problem. We can’t say with certainty what it is.
Chris Nowitzki, whose wrestling career was ended by concussions, has becoming an advocate for education and reform in sports. Like Hillenmeyer, he wants players to be more aware of the risks they are taking. In the case of youth sports, he advocates abolishing take football for children. Clips from Head Games, which is based on Nowitzki’s book, depict pre-teen children crumbling from tackles that would impress NFL scouts. What do such hits do to the brain of a child? Nowitzki scoffed that we don’t let little league pitchers throw curveballs because of the risk of arm injuries. However, we show less concern about hits and tackles that can damage a child’s brain.
Rick Telander was the most pessimistic of the panelists. Where Hillenmeyer and Nowitzki believed that better rules could be put in place for treating players with concussions, Telander saw the problem as unavoidable: the head is in the middle of the body, which means it will receive blows in almost any kind of tackle or block. Last year, Telander wrote a great series on his former team mates at Northwestern and how they have been impacted by head injuries. He knows the problem and seems to see no positive way to deal with it.
As I’ve written in the past about the problem of concussions, I’m a football fan. I’ve whooped and hollered when a player on a team I root for lays a vicious hit on an opponent. That’s harder to do now given what we know about concussions. It’s harder now because of the players who have killed themselves, including former Bears’ safety Dave Dureson, who shot himself in the chest so his brain could be preserved for testing.
I still watch football and love the game. But it’s harder. It’s easy to say players understand and accept the risk. But what about us fans who love this violent game? We buy tickets and jerseys. We make football the highest rated program (and most expensive program) on TV. We look at the player lying still on the field. We watch the medical staff strap him to a board and apply the neck brace. Once the player is off the field, we go back to the game and wait for the next big play, which is often a big hit. What is our responsibility as fans? How long can we accept a game that destroys lives?
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature on work, life, and related topics.]
Perfect and Imperfect
Philip Humber is going to Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yesterday, the 29 year old pitcher for the Chicago White Sox performed an amazing feat: He pitched a perfect game. For non-baseball fans (and there are too many of you), a perfect game occurs when a pitcher faces and retires the minimum number of hitters, 27, allowing no runners to reach base. Only 21 major league pitchers have thrown perfect games.
There is always luck involved in a perfect game. The last pitch of the game was strike three to Brendan Ryan of the Seattle Mariners. The ball got away from catcher A. J. Pierzynski. Ryan could have reached first base if he ran hard. Instead he turned to argue with the umpire while Pierzynski tossed the ball to first base. Humber’s teammates mobbed him in celebration.
I’m a Cubs fan, but not a Sox hater. Time will tell how good a pitcher Humber will become. Last year he had a great first half and a second half that was not good. What I admire most about Humber is his ability to keep going in the face of adversity. He was a high draft pick who was cut by several teams. Then, in the words of Chicago Sun-Times columnist Joe Cowley, “But at the age of 28 Humber found something with the Sox. He found confidence.” If Humber found confidence last year, this morning, he’s found fame and perfection.
Again, for you sad people who don’t like baseball, let me put this story in perspective. Baseball is one of the few games in which a player can achieve perfection. A bowler can score 300, but that is not an uncommon feat, especially for professional bowlers. A gymnast can score a perfect ten. However, that score is based on rules that change frequently and fickle scoring of jingoistic judges. A baseball pitcher has to face 27 hitters and keep them all off base. Beyond not allowing any hits, he can’t walk or hit a batter. A perfect game is also a team effort. If a fielder makes an error, the perfect game is ruined. Major league baseball began in 1876, and only 21 perfect games have been pitched. If Humber never wins another game, his placed in the game’s history is set.
What about imperfection? In today’s Sun-Times, Rick Telander gushes about Jim Abbott’s autobiography, Imperfect: An Improbable Life. Abbott was born without a right hand. That handicap didn’t stop him from becoming a star athlete who pitched in the major leagues and the Olympics. Abbott threw a no-hitter (not quite a perfect game) when he was with the Yankees. Like Humber, Abbott didn’t quit. He overcame great obstacles and reached the top of his profession.
Perfection is rare, so are people like Jim Abbott. The sports pages have started to sound like a gossip sheet, documenting all sorts of personal and moral failings. Stories like Humber’s perfect game and Abbott’s improbable career remind us why we watch great athletes: to be inspired.
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature on life and the work of living.]
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my struggle to read books in the online age. Today I got a similar feeling reading the Sunday paper. I've always enjoyed the Sunday paper because – most Sundays – I have no or limited work responsibilities.
I read the Chicago Sun-Times. Once upon a time I read the city’s other daily newspaper, but it seemed to get worse year by year. Then it was bought by a truly ugly man who insulted his writers and readers. That drove me to the Sun-Times, and I am better for it.
Today’s paper is a wonderful example of why we need good newspapers. The first article reports on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support of public schools. Is the mayor serious or blowing smoke? Time will tell. The paper’s great columnists – Mark Brown, Mary Mitchell, Neil Steinberg, and Carol Marin – cover topics that range from safety in schools to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Marin’s editorial on our recent election is to the point and very funny, beginning and ending with a visit to the Wiener’s Circle.
Investigative reporting is a hallmark of the paper. Over the past months, it has covered a case in which the nephew of former Mayor Daley was allegedly involved in a crime, which seems to have been covered up (or very poorly investigated). Today, three pages of the paper are devoted to investigating connections between government officials and a company that sells milk to Chicago public schools. A list of school prices in city and suburban schools gives the reader a way to compare how the biggest buyer of milk in the state pays the highest price, which makes no sense. There is also a side bar that names and profiles the individuals involved in the story. Connections mean everything in Chicago, and the Sun-Times reveals who is making money off the public’s dime.
The paper’s two best writers have nothing to do with politics or related scandals. Roger Ebert writes about movies, and Rick Telander covers sports. In today’s column, Telander ponders the death of his co-worker and friend, Lacy J. Banks, who covered basketball for the paper. Here is how he describes Banks, who was called the Reverend because he was an ordained minister, at a press conference: “The Reverend elbowed to the front of media crowds and stared directly at his subjects with purpose, and he asked his questions in a booming, from-the-pulpit vocal splendor that sometimes left interviewees mute, staring at him slack-jawed.”
This week’s Sunday paper was unusually good. However, week in, week out, day in, day out, the Sun-Times helps me understand and appreciate the city. It introduces me to new people and places. Most of the time, it’s very well written and interesting. Smart people say the newspaper is dead. It’s just a matter of time until it disappears. We’ve heard that line about jazz for decades. Ask Wynton Marsalis or Kurt Elling (or their fans) if jazz is dead. Viva newspapers! Viva the Chicago Sun-Times.
[On Sundays, this blog explores intersections of work and life in “Sabbath.”]
College Sports and American Values
I normally agree with Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander. Often Telander will cast things in a light that makes readers challenge their beliefs. In his column in today's paper, however, he takes on an easy target, Joe Paterno, and the worship given to top college coaches. When it comes to the crimes committed against children, I agree with Telander 100%. I also agree that coaches are treated with more respect than professors and teachers. However, we need to keep a balance between what disgusts us today and what we should remember about how we treated sports in the past and what has changed over the past few decades.
I’ve frequently written about the great basketball coach John Wooden. Coach Wooden built one of the greatest dynasties of all time while following a strict code of values. In his nineties, Wooden wrote several books that outline his beliefs. Other coaches taught their players similar lessons and helped them finish their educations. By all accounts, Joe Paterno ran a clean football program and graduated his players. His failure was to report a crime, an act that has cost him his reputation and could cost him even more in the future.
What has changed in college sports since the times of John Wooden and Ray Meyer of DePaul? Money. College football and basketball generate millions of dollars for universities. They also help schools build a “brand” that helps increase admissions and contributions from alumni. TV contributes to the problem. We’ve gone from a game or two being televised each week to having entire networks developed to college sports, college conferences, and even individual schools. Schools (not players) even draw income from video games that are based on college sports. All of these factors help create a culture where sports overwhelms all other activities on campus.
Telander notes that no school builds statues to English, history, or math professors. That point is true. But is that problem driven by universities and coaches, or by a culture that worships sports and disdains learning and study? America focuses more and more on entertainment and fun, often sitting in front of a screen of whirling images. We’ve lost the ability to think critically that comes with reading and the discipline needed to learn subjects like math and scinece. Telander’s criticism is accurate on the surface, but we need to look deeper to see the real problem. We need to look in the mirror and accept our responsibility. Do our values fit our words? Clearly, college sports is just one symptom of a culture that has lost its way. We all need to change.
[“Sabbath is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks at intersections of work and life.]
More than Sports
I sometimes tell myself that I’m done with newspapers. They deal in stale news, often slanted in a way that goes against my values. I tell myself to stop wasting money, and then it happens: An investigation of a corrupt politician or members of his family. A profile of someone doing good in the community. An editorial that makes me think about things a different way. The Chicago Sun-Times still offers information and opinion that is relevant, often vital. Roger Ebert consistently delivers such writing in his movie reviews, editorials, and blog posts. So does Rick Telander.
Telander is more than a sports columnist. He thinks about issues and challenges his readers to engage hard subjects. Last year he wrote a series on football and brain injuries that was fascinating and painful at the same. Now he is back with a new series, a study of Murray Park in Chicago’s Englewood community, the part of the city where basketball star Derrick Rose grew up. Telander visited the area frequently last summer. He found the land that Michael Harrington called the “Other America,” a real place most of us choose not to see.
Reading about gang shootings, it’s often easy to forget that people live in areas like Englewood. Telander introduces us to those people: teachers, park superintendents, police officers, and postal workers. In today’s installment, he confesses that he quickly adapted to a community where people were shot and killed. Only the most unusual murders get noticed. Shooting is part of everyday life.
Kids escape through basketball, dreaming of being the next Derrick Rose, the kid who was able to leave the neighborhood. Telander profiles some of Rose’s friends who have chosen not to leave the community because they want to make it better. At the end of today’s installment, one of Rose’s childhood friends is trying to calm a group of young people. A car rides by and shot are fired. The peace maker was shot seven times (His story will be continued in tomorrow’s paper).
To his credit, Telander reports without judgment. Often, he lets people in the community tell the story in their own words. In the 1970s Telander wrote a great book called Heaven Is a Playground. His profile of Murray Park describes young people on playgrounds, but no one would call it heaven. At the same time, it’s too simple to call it hell. Some, like Derrick Rose, have left the neighborhood and live better, safer lives. Others choose to stay and fight to change it. Telander introduces us to the range of humanity in Murray Park, and we are richer for the experience. Without newspapers, we wouldn’t have such stories. Our lives would be simpler – in the worst sense of that word.
[On Sundays, Career Calling looks at intersections of work and life in ”Sabbath”]
Play’s Dark Consequences
Rick Telander of the Sun-Times is a great sportswriter. His columns are always thoughtful, and his book Heaven is a Playground captured the joy of young men playing basketball in the city. Now he has taken on a less happy, but important task: examining the effect of football injuries long after players have left the game.
This topic grew hot last year. Many former NFL players are joining programs where their brains will be studied after their death. Based on findings so far, many players have suffered greatly for whatever fame and fortune they took from football.
Telander ponders teammates and other players who have suffered brain injuries. In the first installment of the series, he discussed some of his former teammates from Northwestern University. But the most compelling story was that of former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg. I remember watching Hilgenberg play in the 1970s. He died at age 66 from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). Telander interviewed a doctor who studied slides from Hilgenberg’s brain. She demonstrated for Telander how constant impact to Hilgenberg’s head had caused damage to his brain that would not occur in a normal human even at age 100.
In the second installment, Telander interviews his friend Mike Adamle, a star running back at Northwestern, who also played seven years in the NFL. He has been a sportscaster for several years. One day while on the air he lost the ability to speak clearly, feeling like a “tidal wave” hit half his brain. At age 49, Adamle was diagnosed with epilepsy. He controls the disease with medication and lives an active life (recently completing the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii). Even so, he fears that his children will have to see him as an invalid because of the damage done to his body on the football field many years ago.
It’s not just football. I grew up loving boxing. In 1982, I watched a fight between Ray “Boom-Boom” Manicini and Duk Koo-Kim. It was a horrible mismatch. Mancini pounded Kim, but the less talented fighter wouldn’t go down. Finally his body gave in, he fell, and died not long after the fight. Boxing pretends to be civilized violence. There are rules, gloves, and a doctor ringside. What is the object of the sport? Hit your opponent until he (and now she) falls and stays down.
My hero growing up was Muhammad Ali. During his last, sad fights, Ali’s hands trembled slightly, controlled with heavy doses of dopamine. His speech is slurred, and now he seldom speaks in public. Doctors say Ali suffers from Parkinson’s Syndrome, a condition caused by repeated blows to the head. He has lived and done many good things for the world, but I wonder: If he could turn the clock back, would he trade wealth and glory for his health?
Many people like to dismiss pro wrestling as “fake.” This scripted form of entertainment still involves violent blows to the head. A few years ago, a talented performer named Chris Benoit killed his wife, their child, and himself. Initial reports and media buzz speculated that steroids caused the wrestler to murder his family in a fit of ‘roid rage. Later, doctors studied Benoit’s brain and said it was in worse shape than that of four football players who had also committed suicide. Several other wrestlers have died in recent years, many from overuse of pain killers related to the damage they suffered in the ring.
Telander asks the question: Is it worth it? Most of the athletes say they would still play the game that could cripple them. Those of us who watch violent sports know the truth (Ali has been exhibit A for several decades). We want the big hit, and athletes want the thrill and glory (and, for a few, the money). Growing awareness of head injuries may help doctors and trainers find new ways to prevent or limit injuries. Even so, as long as sports involve blows to the head through constant punching and tackling, there will be a price to pay. At least future generations of athletes will have a better sense of the risk they are taking.
I strongly recommend Telander’s series.
Here's the third installment of Telander's series.
In installment five, Telander interviews former teammate Jack Smeeton, who suffered several concussions and later had both knees replaced. Smeeton recognizes what football has done to his body, but he also credits the sport with helping him be successful in life as a prosecutor and defense lawyer: "Football taught me determination and tenacity and discipline. Being an attorney is a natural profession for a former football player, guys who like competition."
Telander profiles Gerry Combs, a former teammate who has been very successful in business.
Installment 7: Jack Rudnay, a star at Northwestern and Kansas City in the NFL, who lives with constant pain from his football injuries. Even so, Rudnay does not complain. He sums up his philosophy in these words: “People get pain and suffering confused.” Tough guy.
George Keporos, the subject of installment 8, has a few memory issues, which may or may not be football related. Otherwise he is fine. His daughter, a volleyball player who recently graduated from Northwestern, will probably need knee replacement surgery in her 30s from the punishment dished out in her "non-contact" sport.
In the ninth and final installment of his series, Rick Telander asks what effect concussion and other sports injuries are having on our culture. He asks a doctor if we could be experiencing a “dumbing down” in the way men think. The doctor, a man of statistics, doesn’t what to commit to a definitive answer and will only say that it is possible. Telander then answers his own question, “It is more than possible.”
I agree with Telander. Look at current movies. Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell have built careers out of playing lovable doofuses. Earlier in his career, Jim Carrey gave us “Dumb and Dumber” and the even dumber, Ace Ventura. What do these characters and stories say about men? If we don’t respect ourselves enough to be intelligent, why should we care if a few men suffer serious brain injuries as part of our national passion, football?
Rick Telander deserves great credit for the intelligence and sensitivity he brought to this difficult topic.