SportsProf

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The President is Right

I don't always agree with the President (come to think of it, most people don't always agree with everyone), and I'm sure he'll catch flak on this commentary from the right (from people who think that he's soft on "tough" stuff) and the left (from none other than the former Governor of Pennsylvania, who, after the Eagles postponed a game because of a snow storm, called the U.S. a "Nation of Wusses.").  That flak comes with the territory and makes being President a very lonely job -- few love you all the time, and many vote for you because your the better alternative to the other guy if not the perfect person for the job.  Having a thick skin is probably a significant criterion on the job description.

As opposed to having the hardest head. 

President Obama recently sat for an interview in which he offered that he'd probably block his son from playing football (were he to have one), despite his love for the game.  The linked excerpt from ESPN.com highlights the general thrust of his thoughts and risks being labeled "un-American" from those who define themselves as the definers of what "American" is.  Yet, as physical a president as Teddy Roosevelt almost outlawed football because of the brutality, leading to national reforms.  And he was a Republican.  So, it's probably wise to keep partisan politics out of football and focus on the facts -- the repetitive banging of heads, the trauma to the brain, the statistics of former players who have significant problems and our national thirst for this type of gladiator activity and how badly we need that activity at the expense of the long-term health of thousands of young men.

We let our son play football when he was in fifth grade.  He did well in school and was a very good sport about tagging along to his sister's endless travel games and such.  He is a very nice kid, slender, and played offensive line.  He didn't figure into the action in his first two games, and then, in a practice, suffered  a concussion in a tackling drill.  A kid who outweighed him by 25 pounds used his own head as a battering ram and made helmet-to-helmet contact with my son.  The coaches -- each of whom cared a great deal about proper tackling and did their best to coach the team -- knew that one kid would emerge from that particular collision injured -- the smaller kid.  That injury effectively ended my son's career.  Probably for the best, too.

The emergency room doctor wasn't big on nurturing.  For all I knew she was having a bad day personally, is a big football fan, doesn't have kids, doesn't like her hospital, but was clearly short on the type of caring counsel that parents of an injured boy needed.  I had asked her about his getting back into playing -- there were four games left in the season, plus at least one playoff game.  I figured she'd automatically say, "well, he's only 11, and that's the type of thing he should let rest, so, yes, he's done."  To me, for the long-term care of a kid, that probably should be the answer, period.  And that's how I asked my question, by explaining the length of the season and suggesting, "he's done for the year, right?"

To my surprise (and perhaps this is what is acceptable clinical practice), the doctor told me that he wasn't necessarily out for the year and could begin practicing with the team again "once the headaches go away."  I didn't agree with the advice, and I wasn't about to blindly follow the advice of a busy E.R. doc who didn't know my son or our family.  I also figured that even if the headaches went away in ten days, he'd have missed so much that he'd be behind and not in as good shape as the other kids, and, therefore, be at risk again.  That's probably conservative thinking, but kids get only one brain and have only one life, and, as a parent, you need to be a steward for your kid and not put him into situations over which he has almost no control (such as the decision whether to play, because all kids and players want to get back in there).  The choice, then, was easy -- he's out for the year.  For what it's worth -- and I'm not a doctor -- I believe that this should be the prescription for any kid who suffers a concussion at any point in a football season -- you are out for the year.

We had other reasons for our decision.  A classmate of our daughter -- who is three years ahead in school -- had suffered so many concussions playing basketball that she was compelled to stay at home for two weeks with zero brain activity -- no reading, no radio, no TV, no computer, no iPod -- so as to help her get better.  You know, when you're looking to buy a new car, you notice every model on the road.  When your kid has suffered a trauma, your ears pick up on every conversation about head injuries.  Our son plays many competitive sports, but football probably wasn't for him, anyway.  The concussion made that decision a lot easier. 

Better to let healing become complete than to risk a worse injury "for the glory of the game" and for the development of a portion of character that says, "pick yourself up and get back in there."  The flip side to those bromides are a) the game isn't always that glamorous and b) you aren't a genius if you thrust yourself back into danger blindly without thinking about how to avoid the disastrous result you just suffered.

Personal story aside, I do worry about the collective conscience of a nation.  So many play this game so hard for so long, sure, to a degree, for their enjoyment, but also for the enjoyment of those who watch it.  But unless and until we have some better protections for the longer-term care of those whom society seemingly disposes of after their useful football lives are over and at a time when they need the care of the fans the most -- when their injuires manifest -- how do we watch this game and feel only good things about it and ourselves?  The landscape is littered with the shattered bodies and psyches of former players and their loved ones, and, ultimately, we'll need to face that landscape in a much better fashion than we have to date.  In fact, we'll have to face the facts before that landscape continues to get worse. 

And then how will we feel?  We will feel great that our team beat the archrivals, or that our heroes, when in their fifties and sixties, cannot remember their spouses' names or where the bathroom is, suffer from early onset dementia or Alzheimer's.  We will feel great that we won, or awful for the fate of these men who, perhaps, decades ago, didn't know the potential long-term effects from the sports that their parents signed them up to play and, perhaps sadly and ironically for them, they were good at?  No victory seems to be worth that price.

After all, it's usually a better course to put up the stop sign at the intersection before the accidents happen than after they do. 

And we've seen too many wrecks to continue on the present course.

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