As I write this post, I’m sitting here watching the 49ers take on the Seahawks. It’s been a great game so far, although the sheer number of injuries have been terrifying, culminating in an absolutely horrific injury to 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman where his leg bent in ways it shouldn’t under any circumstances.
LOUD NOISES pic.twitter.com/6NxnTYv4z9
— SB Nation GIF (@SBNationGIF) January 12, 2014
Like a lot of people, I like sports. In fact, I was one of the 56 million people who tuned into that NFC Championship game mentioned above – more than the entire population of Spain, and the total population of California and Florida together. Getting together with friends, watching football, hockey, UFC, or any other sport is one of my favourite passtimes. The drama that comes along with professional sports in the form of redemption stories, a veteran’s final chance at a title, and the bad blood associated with historic rivalries all lead to a great afternoon/evening/day. In addition, there’s the sheer skill and athletic ability of the competitors and watching years of practice and training pay off. Along with this comes one of the most exciting things for any spectator, especially those who like football or hockey, to witness.
The Bone Crushing Hit.
You know what this is. A player gets the puck/ball and runs towards the goal/endzone, and a defensive player absolutely destroys them. You’re sitting at home, miles away, and you cringe with the sheer impact. It makes every highlight reel, and transcends sports, appearing on highlights reels for the NHL and the NFL. Sometimes this is illegal but more often than not, it’s perfectly legal, and considered “part of the game.” This is where I have trouble.
I live in two worlds. In the first, I like sports, for all of the reasons listed above. In the second, however, I am a public health professional. And when I see a guy get hit into the boards, a helmet to helmet collision, or when I see a player’s head snap back with the sheer force of impact, my first thought is for their brain and the potential for there to be serious, long term, damage. The kind of effects this can have is illustrated in this great piece by ESPN on Chris Pronger, a player who is retired* from the NHL, and suffered several hits to the head.
With the Superbowl and the Winter Olympics starting next month, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to reconcile these, seemly opposite, perspectives.
One approach, especially by sport “purists” is that it’s part of the game, and these adverse events are simply aberrations. Frankly, I hate this perspective. Yes, some injuries are unavoidable and will happen regardless (NaVorro Bowman’s injury at the top of the article is one of them). They also argue that these athletes are being paid for their services and know the risks when they start playing. However, there are injuries that are preventable. We should be looking ways to minimize injuries, and at the very least, exploring all options.
The approach taken by many major leagues now is to start teaching healthy ways to tackle and hit players starting at a younger age. This, combined with changes in equipment, could, in theory, result in lower injuries as these kids age. But even this has its detractors. Something like visors in the NHL has been talked about for years, but only now has been made mandatory, and even then, there is clause whereby it is optional for current players. And fighting still exists in the NHL, despite the clear health risks associated with being punched in the head repeatedly (Disclaimer: Those videos include people being knocked out and blood). Even when the evidence is there and suggests that we should make changes, changes don’t happen.
The third approach is simply to ban all contact. As much as I am averse to injuries, this isn’t a practical suggestion. For one, it would fundamentally alter certain sports, such as football. So this is a non-starter.
It’s hard to balance the world of the sports fan with the world of the public health person, and while watching sports I’ll catch myself asking “how can I support this?” knowing full well the consequences of these behaviours on the athletes in questions. Somewhere between the second and third approach above there has to be a happy medium. The fact is that many young kids will emulate what they see on TV, and the massive hits we see on TV are only the tip of the iceberg – there are injuries occurring the whole way from the professional to the amateur ranks. Sure, some of these changes may mean that the sport is less entertaining for fans. But the fact is, if it means that young athletes are able to live out their lives without suffering from concussions and other symptoms, and the only price is “entertainment,” I’m okay with that.
*Pronger is not officially retired, due to what this would be mean for his team from a salary cap perspective. But he has stated he will never play again, so not retiring is just a way to circumvent this regulation.