My Turn: Taking the blood out of sports

For the Monitor
Published: 1/10/2022 7:01:02 AM
Modified: 1/10/2022 7:00:09 AM

As sports fans know, this time of year weekends are dedicated to football. I look forward to the Patriots and Bucs, as I still enjoy watching Brady and Gronk do their thing in Tampa Bay. But the cascade of players injured during every game makes me wonder at times why I’m watching. One after another they leave the field, either on their own, limping and groggy, or on a stretcher, unmoving.

After an injury, the game is halted and quickly switches to a timeout and a commercial. When we return to the game, the player is often in the locker room, out of sight, out of mind, and the cycle begins anew. Any play can result in a season or career-ending injury.

Football is the number one watched sport in the U.S. Despite the season being only 17 games long, no other sport comes close in popularity. Could the inherent violence be what lures so many to watch? When a receiver or runner catches the ball and is flattened by the defense, it’s not unusual for the crowd to roar with delight or for the defensive players to dance in celebration. That’s before the crowd goes quiet as the team gathers around the fallen player, no longer moving, or writhing on the ground in pain.

Fans and networks feast on the violence. NFL football encourages legal assault. Within its rules, it is possible to seriously impair the ability of the opposition to function. Players are exposed to vicious tackles and can be knocked unconscious without any penalty assessed. The harder the hit the bigger is the response from the crowd and the announcers. It’s as close as we get to the Roman Coliseum where gladiators battled to the death. At least we don’t feature lions as half-time entertainment.

NFL players have a life expectancy of fewer than 60 years and only play an average of four years professionally. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disorder that has been found in 87% of former NFL players, is caused by repeated head trauma.

CTE diminishes the length and quality of life of professional boxers, hockey players and mixed martial arts (MMA) competitors too. In short, any sport that involves one player beating the crap out of another results in a large number of concussions and brain injuries. In boxing and MMA, the goal is to knock out the opponent whenever possible. That means hitting or kicking them in the head until they lose consciousness.

Defenders of football point to the advances in helmet design that have given the players more protection. But it’s unlikely any design is going to fully protect the delicate brain tissue floating within the skull from the violent collisions that routinely happen.

Long ago when our son entered high school my wife and I prayed the school would not field a football team until after his senior year. Our son enjoyed physical contact and would have wanted to be on the team. We’re grateful that Kearsarge didn’t start its football program until after he graduated.

High school football has grown dramatically since then, along with the popularity of the NFL. How many players are going to have their lives shortened or impaired as a result of their participation from a young age?

There are so many sports that do not have the inherently life-threatening qualities of football, boxing, professional hockey and MMA. Basketball, baseball, soccer and all of the Olympic sports attest to the high level of skill and competition possible while maintaining the safety of its athletes. The Olympics allow only amateur boxing, in which protective headgear is worn. The MMA has not been allowed to participate due to excessive violence.

We all understand that good health is our most important quality. Preserving our health and preventing harm to our bodies should be built into the rules of every sport. From this perspective, some sports should simply cease to exist, like boxing and MMA. These bloodsports reflect the worst tendencies to harm our fellow human beings.

Football can be played in different ways without sacrificing the unique skill sets needed to excel. The rules could be altered to minimize harm to a player, in part through stiff penalties and suspensions. Players could still tackle and compete aggressively against each other, as in rugby, without attempting to inflict harm. The NHL could eliminate removing gloves and fighting as an option, as does college hockey.

Sports play an outsized role in our culture. Societal pressure has in recent years resulted in numerous enlightened reforms. Owners, players, coaches and trainers who are racist and sexist are no longer acceptable. Several teams have made significant name changes to better reflect the inclusiveness of their fan base. More coaches are from minorities and more women are entering the ranks of professional male sports. These are all paradigm shifts.

The violence in society can seem overwhelming as mankind continues to find new ways to hurt each other. By disallowing the intent to violently harm athletes in the NFL and other sports we could set a new standard of play, and perhaps, of life.

Would fans enjoy football as much without serious damage to the players? I, for one, would enjoy it more.

(Sol Solomon lives in Sutton.)

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