Sunday, May 06, 2012


The noise is getting louder by the week, it seems.

Junior Seau committed suicide last week, according to analysis by the authorities. He played 20 years in the National Football League, and he's the latest former NFL player to end his life that way.

Such stories have come up in professional sports every so often. More common are stories about ex-players who have physical and mental issues that at worst may have a connection to their playing careers.

Put another way -- the leagues that run contact sports in this day and age have a huge problem, and it seems to be growing.

This is nothing new in a sense. Boxers have been beating each up for more than a century, and few come out of it unharmed. Ever hear of the phrase "punch drunk?" Muhammad Ali has received plenty of publicity for his health situation, but Joe Frazier could barely talk near the end of his life. The list goes on and on.

But my guess is that we tended to devalue those situations in something resembling snobbery. The boxers -- traditionally men from the bottom of the economic ladder -- knew what they were getting into when they signed up at the gym. They were well-paid, relatively speaking and in at least a few cases (darn few, actually). People have the right to bring harm to themselves if that's what they want. If you've noticed, boxers don't have a union trying to get members permanent health care, so they just had to live with the after-effects of their chosen profession. You could make the same arguments about wrestlers, who take a beating even if the results aren't on the up and up.

But now the effects seem to be spreading, perhaps as the athletes get bigger and stronger. The hockey players of today are far bigger and faster than the ones of 50, 60 years ago. Their collisions are therefore bigger. Throw in fighting, and its easy to see why long-term medical problems there are becoming an issue.

Then there's football. Linemen almost have to weigh 300 pounds these days to play pro -- and in some cases, top-level college -- football. Those collisions are getting worse as well. Someone described each play as a car accident in terms of a physical toll. Play 10 years, and that physical pounding more than adds up.

The pro sports leagues have a problem. They have to make the game safer for the participants, for the present and the future, if only to avoid an endless string of lawsuits. They have to act so that players aren't considered completely disposable commodities, thrown in the discard pile when the leagues are done with them. But they have to do that while realizing that contact is an essential attraction to part of the fan base.

It's going to be a difficult balancing act. Get used to it, though -- sports executives will be trying to walk that tightrope for years to come.

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