Sports provide us the most delirious euphorias, the pure delight of seeing the human body to do what it’s built to do. Sports also kill and maim us.
Can you get the good stuff without the bad?
Yes. Sports could help prevent our multiple national obesity epidemics. Engaging people more in sports could improve the population’s mental functioning, economic productivity (it’s amazing what midday exercise does for the afternoon work slump), decrease Alzheimer’s disease, and powerfully aid the public health.
We need that help. The U.S. ranks 50th in overall life expectancy. The biggest reason is lifestyle—particularly our sedentary kind. Sitting itself is a risk factor for death.
Yet to get our many sports to aid our longevity and the economy, we need to be clear about their purpose. For most of the population, sports should be about health—physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being.
Which means we have to separate out the soldiers and the civilians—the professionals who get paid from the rest of us. You don’t have to read Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights” to recognize that for many communities, sports acts as a substitute for war. We know Vince Lombardi supposedly said “winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.” Yet in wars between professional armies, there are specific, different rules for civilians and rules for soldiers.
The same should be true for sports. For most of us are civilians—particularly kids.
Iraq and Afghanistan Meet the NFL and NHL
There will be many hard consequences of the Iraq and Afghan wars. The brain injuries of the combatants and civilians will bedevil many societies for decades. Estimates are that 30% of war veterans coming back to the US suffer from traumatic brain injury and/or PTSD. Some will overcome the disabilities; others will watch them wreck their lives and their families’ lives.
There are few jobs more feted than being a professional North American football or hockey player. Most of us have less chance of reaching their levels of sports skill than we do sitting down to a piano with orchestra and musically playing the Rachmanioff Piano Concerto.
In our bones we know these facts. To lots of people professional ball players are heroes. They’re paid well. Some even see the income heights of middle-rank investment bankers.
Yet most who reach the pros will never obtain the truly long green. That’s because too many are injured early and often. Careers in the pros are often short not because of lack of determination, desire, or discipline but because folks get too injured to continue to play well.
Lots of those injuries occur to the head.
Don’t Beat on the Brain
I first witnessed a neurosurgery procedure in a rundown New York City teaching hospital whose slick yellow-tiled walls smelled of damp mildew. The patient’s head had been shaved in a weird V formation; the sharp, antique looking saw lay on the drapes to the side, near the square cut piece of cranium it had lopped off. The professor turned red as he watched the Swiss neurosurgery fellow start to cut out the brain tumor.
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you twice—don’t beat on the brain,” he shouted in a broad Brooklyn accent, nodding towards the surgical field. “Look at this brain. This brain is green. You’ve been beating on this brain. Don’t beat on the brain!”
It doesn’t take much to beat on the brain. On the football field, the hockey field, and many other fields, brains get smacked at gravitational forces way beyond what fighter pilots experience swooping sharply at Mach 2.
Human bodies regenerate rapidly—most of our heart gets replaced inside three days. But the tears, rips, and ridges cut into the cerebrum by traumatic hits are hard to repair and make new in the protected, bone boxed skulls our brains call home. Brains can’t twist and curl like ankles and knees.
And they’re even harder to repair and remake when they’re hit again and again and again—as happens in many of our favorite sports.
Soldiers and Civilians
Many kids can’t wait to get out on a football field, to make and take hits.
But kids don’t develop full development of their frontal lobes—and analytic skills—until their early twenties.
So adults have to make those decisions for them.
Sports provide more than intense pleasures and improved physical and mental health. They can teach teamwork and discipline, demonstrate how sustained attention can eventually create sustained achievement.
They can also keep the population healthy.
That means that junior high, high school and college sports need to be about more than winning. First they need to be about the health of the players—present and future. If certain kinds of hits reliably lead to brain damage, they deserve no place in amateur sports. The rules should create a “level playing field” where injuries are minimized.
Professional players know their jobs are dangerous. The lucky ones are compensated well—though not well enough to prepare and thrive in their post-professional careers. Too many are too hurt to do that.
The line between soldier and civilians gets very grey when you stare at the bright media blur of college sports. Many college athletes are professional in everything but name. They receive scholarships, free or subsidized room and board, accolades and privileges—before their illegal gifts and payments. And though some are among the brightest people in the country, others receive intense tutoring so they can pass simplified classes specially created to maintain their eligibility. If they do graduate—and far too many do not—they must face what Gandhi called “the false pride of a false education.”
Universities and the NCAA look at their hundreds of millions in profit, the prestige of their sports programs, the adulation and huge financial contributions of fans, and see a system they really enjoy.
They should look again.
And for the professional leagues also need to look at the future—a wider vision than increasing their audience and revenues in developing markets.
People want to believe in athletes. They want to think that sports contests are fair, that their heroes are not cheaters. Look at what happened to Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Drug enhancements and doping may or may not help performance but can certainly wreck people’s health.
The original Olympic athletes won more glory than lucre. Change the game rules and you should increase the glory of the game. Professional athletes should not have to worry that at age 40 they won’t be able to walk or that their tongues can’t find words.
Otherwise professional sports risk fitting the indictment that George Orwell leveled in his essay “The Sporting Spirit” in the 1940s—“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”
We can do a lot better than that. Sports can provide some of the best experiences in life. They should be about health, not injury and death.
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