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I hope you’re ready for it. I seriously do. Because it’s going to happen. It’s no longer a matter of ‘if’. It’s a matter of ‘when.’
It won’t be staged. It won’t be scripted.
It will be genuine.
It could happen right in front of your eyes. When you’re drinking a beer, chatting with your friends, sitting on the couch. When you’re enjoying something you’ve enjoyed your entire life.
It could happen next year. It could happen next month. Or it could happen tomorrow.
It could be in football. It could be in baseball. It could be in hockey. It could be in boxing.
And it will change everything.
Despite all of the uncertainties of when, where, who, how, there is one thing that is certain.
While playing professional sports. On live television. In the arena, rink or stadium.
Someone will die.
Over the past handful of years, the amount of research going into brain injuries, specifically concussions, has increased tremendously. Some fantastic literature (two of the many great pieces can be found here and here) has been published about the impact that concussions have on cognitive development (or more apt, degeneration). The informative research detailing the disturbing frequency of CTE among retired football, hockey and soccer players and boxers has finally raised awareness about the brutality and long-term consequences of a career spent playing a game.
And yet, it remains stuck at that stage. Awareness.
In spite of all the big talk, the only reaction from the big leagues is strictly reactionary. “Oh, if you get a concussion, you have to sit out.” “You look woozy – we’re going to have a third-party doctor diagnose you.” “You just got your fourth concussion of your career. You need to take this week off before we can let you back in to the action.”
Can you blame them? Revenues are at record-levels. Ratings have never been better. Their leagues have never been healthier. (Yes, this goes for the NHL too. Hockey has never been more financially-stable, which is why this lockout has to rank as the most mind-numbing event of the Bettman era, and that’s saying something.) No league has taken preventative action. Instead of preventing the cut from happening, Roger Goodell, Gary Bettman, Bud Selig and their band of merry ferries are much happier just applying a band-aid to mitigate the bleed.
Why mess with a good thing? If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, right?
This is all well and good, until you realize that …
Someone will die.
I’m not talking about just anyone in the stadium dying. There have been many unfortunate accidents occur over the past decade in pro sports in a public venue.
In 2002, a teenage girl was struck in the temple by a deflected slap shot. She died two days later.
Last year, at a Texas Rangers game, a fan tried to catch a ball tossed by Josh Hamilton, fell over the railing and died nearly instantly.
Just as recently as last month, at a preseason Houston Texans game, a 25-year old man died after falling off an escalator at Reliant Stadium.
The NHL reacted by putting transparent mesh around the rink. The MLB is planning on eliminating potential drop zones. And the NFL is looking into their freak accident.
But these things happen. Whenever tens of thousands of people get together, alcohol is involved, we accept it as a possibility that something will happen. Obviously we never want it to happen, but we understand that it is within the realm of possibility. And because we understand that, we can rationalize such a tragic loss.
And because you return to the stadium, and because you continue to watch on TV, and because you continue to buy jerseys, the teams will not ever have to deal seriously with the issue of fan death. It is an acceptable minimal risk associated with being alive, like driving a car or crossing a street.And then we will return to the stadium the very next week, because “it could never happen to me.” And you’re right. 99.99999% of the time, you are right. It will not happen to you. Thankfully.
This is not about fans dying.
Players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. Collisions are occurring at a higher velocity, with a higher intensity and higher impact.
In the past month alone, the following incidents have occurred:
This all went down in a month where hockey, the fastest of the dangerous sports, is not in session. Is it necessary to remind the reader that a hockey arena is the only place in the world where you can legally and consistently watch bare-knuckle boxing? (An activity deemed so barbaric and inhumane that it had been banned since 1889, until a recent revival.) Not to mention that there’s a very good chance the loser of the fight’s head will slam against a solid piece of ice upon defeat, causing indeterminable amounts of brain damage.
What does all of this mean?
From my seat in the bleachers, it’s pretty obvious. These incidents are building up to a dangerous inevitability. And it’s terrifying.
Someone will die.
A baseball reaches the plate at 90 miles per hour. A smooth and powerful swing will send the ball back the other direction at an even higher velocity. A ball traveling over 100 mph, struck so hard it has the potential to kill. Sixty feet away, with his body crouched over after finishing his pitch, with insufficient time and incorrect position to react accordingly, a starting pitcher sacrifices his own well-being 120 times per game.
A 330-pound man that can run a 40 in 4.4 flat charges at you. You don’t see him coming as he’s coming from the side and you’re trying to track the ball-carrier ahead of you. He lowers his helmet into the side of yours, extending through the hit and you go flying, like you’re supposed to. You fly through the air helplessly, the 100th time you’ve done so this season. It happens a few times every game, and every time, you get back up for the next one. Except this time, you don’t get up. Not after five seconds. Not after one minute. Not after the medics rush on to the field. Not after the defibrillator sends a charge through your body strong enough to start a car.
I don’t even need to create an image for hockey (fine, sadists see: Chara on Pacioretty). If you’ve ever seen the game, you already understand.
Someone will die.
When it happens, everything will change. You’ll never be able to enjoy sports the same way again. Every time you sit down to watch Sunday Night Football or Hockey Night in Canada or the World Series, you’ll remember that time you sat stunned, frozen, on your couch, as a grown man expired in front of your eyes. That time you watched as paramedics surrounded a man in peak physical condition, trying to breathe life back into him. That time you watched as grown men in uniforms and suits stood on the sidelines, with tears in their eyes, praying that their teammate would magically spring back up. That time you watched as the cameramen panned to the inert player’s frantic wife, out of her mind with concern for her husband. That time you watched as his wife tried to maintain some semblance of control for the sake of her kids, who were confused as to why their daddy was just lying on the field and were asking their mommy if he was just playing that silly game again.
It will be plastered on YouTube, and ESPN will carry it with the forewarning: “Not for the easily-traumatized.” Every sports blog will run it, in conjunction to their heartfelt condolences. You’ll see it everywhere, and you’ll never see sports the same way again.
Only after your reaction, after you decide that you can’t watch anymore, that you can’t enjoy the game in the same way, will the game truly change.
Once the new mentality impacts the old man’s wallet, then the game will see change. New rules will be put in place to ‘protect player safety.’ New medical procedures will be implemented to ‘ensure long-term health.’ But it won’t make any difference. It will be too late.
Someone has already died.
Can it be avoided?
If the leagues remain entrenched in their reactionary position, no it can’t.
If the leagues decide to evolve their game to keep pace with the evolution in the players’ bodies, then the avoidance possibility increases. But if we have been able to learn anything from the professional leagues over the past decade, it is that they are highly reluctant to intervene with their profitable product.
The NHL has refused to consider banning fighting, and their treatment of dangerous headshots can be described best as ‘hypocritical’ and ‘inconsistent.’ The MLB believes that they don’t have any issues, even though they mandate half of the players on the field to wear hard helmets at any given time.
The NFL is the breadwinner in the “Disregard for Player Safety” category. When presented with the chance to tackle concussions head-on during their brief lockout last year, Goodell’s main priority was to make the season longer. During the past offseason, when he could have dealt with the mountains of evidence that implicated his sport as a serious contributor to brain damage and diseases, he elected to shift the responsibility to the New Orleans Saints and smear them for doing what all 31 other teams do.
Most recently, the NFL had a chance to mandate the use of a considerably safer helmet, proven to hold up significantly better than the common one in safety tests. Instead, they passed, as that would have meant turning their back on a long-time sponsor. In some regards, you have to commend the NFL for their loyalty. If only they shared that loyalty with their players.