Friday, October 21, 2011

Use your head

I think I've figured out what the big story in sports over the next 10 years, minimum, is going to be.

Head injuries.

The evidence is piling up quickly when it comes to contact sports. Football players are dying far too young, and those who survive are often impaired. Stories about alumni gatherings of football teams, particularly in the pro ranks, are quickly turning into sad tales about the disabilities these ex-athletes now have.

And no wonder. Linemen have said they go through the equivalent of a car crash on every single snap. And if you haven't noticed, the players are getting bigger, faster and stronger -- thus making the collisions worse by the year.

In hockey, a few current enforcers died over the summer. The ex-players are showing signs of problems as well. A brain scan of Rick Martin, hardly a tough guy, showed damage. Sabre fans remember in the late 1970's when he took a nasty fall and landed on his head. He showed up for his next game, quite a bit later, in a helmet for the first time.

Here's the fundamental problem that face those who run contact sports. How do they make it more safe for the players without taking out some of the excitement that attracts fans?

If they don't do something, and soon, the problems are going to mount. They are going to get the reputation for turning their players into something close to "disposable" -- they play a few years, get their heads knocked around, and then are sent off eventually ill-equipped to handle society's challenges. There will be someone to take his place, eager to collect the money and glory for a while.

And you can guess what is coming too -- lawsuits. By the truckload.

We've gotten better at dealing with concussions during the past few years. Baseline teams are mandatory in many sports, and players aren't rushed back into action so quickly after "a rung bell."

But before long, sports leagues are going to have to take a look at how to make their games safer. The NFL has tried to cut down on the collisions on kickoff returns this year. The NHL is trying to be pro-active on the matter; league officials have to be praying for the return of one of its greatest stars, Sidney Crosby, from a concussion. (For more on the NHL, check out Ken Dryden's superb piece from Grantland, which wonders how much longer fighting in hockey can be tolerated.)

This line of thinking probably will filter down into other levels, such as the colleges. Other contact sports have to ponder the situation as well. Speaking as someone familiar with indoor lacrosse, which features sticks flying around heads, concussions have to be a concern as well.

I don't want to read any more stories about ex-football players like John Mackey, whose mental state deterioriated quickly in the final years of his life. But I know I will. I also don't want to read any more stories that end like those of late NHL players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak. We need to take action soon to make sure we don't.

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