[On Sundays, Career Calling looks at intersections of work and life in ”Sabbath”]
Play’s Dark Consequences
Rick Telander of the Sun-Times is a great sportswriter. His columns are always thoughtful, and his book Heaven is a Playground captured the joy of young men playing basketball in the city. Now he has taken on a less happy, but important task: examining the effect of football injuries long after players have left the game.
This topic grew hot last year. Many former NFL players are joining programs where their brains will be studied after their death. Based on findings so far, many players have suffered greatly for whatever fame and fortune they took from football.
Telander ponders teammates and other players who have suffered brain injuries. In the first installment of the series, he discussed some of his former teammates from Northwestern University. But the most compelling story was that of former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg. I remember watching Hilgenberg play in the 1970s. He died at age 66 from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). Telander interviewed a doctor who studied slides from Hilgenberg’s brain. She demonstrated for Telander how constant impact to Hilgenberg’s head had caused damage to his brain that would not occur in a normal human even at age 100.
In the second installment, Telander interviews his friend Mike Adamle, a star running back at Northwestern, who also played seven years in the NFL. He has been a sportscaster for several years. One day while on the air he lost the ability to speak clearly, feeling like a “tidal wave” hit half his brain. At age 49, Adamle was diagnosed with epilepsy. He controls the disease with medication and lives an active life (recently completing the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii). Even so, he fears that his children will have to see him as an invalid because of the damage done to his body on the football field many years ago.
It’s not just football. I grew up loving boxing. In 1982, I watched a fight between Ray “Boom-Boom” Manicini and Duk Koo-Kim. It was a horrible mismatch. Mancini pounded Kim, but the less talented fighter wouldn’t go down. Finally his body gave in, he fell, and died not long after the fight. Boxing pretends to be civilized violence. There are rules, gloves, and a doctor ringside. What is the object of the sport? Hit your opponent until he (and now she) falls and stays down.
My hero growing up was Muhammad Ali. During his last, sad fights, Ali’s hands trembled slightly, controlled with heavy doses of dopamine. His speech is slurred, and now he seldom speaks in public. Doctors say Ali suffers from Parkinson’s Syndrome, a condition caused by repeated blows to the head. He has lived and done many good things for the world, but I wonder: If he could turn the clock back, would he trade wealth and glory for his health?
Many people like to dismiss pro wrestling as “fake.” This scripted form of entertainment still involves violent blows to the head. A few years ago, a talented performer named Chris Benoit killed his wife, their child, and himself. Initial reports and media buzz speculated that steroids caused the wrestler to murder his family in a fit of ‘roid rage. Later, doctors studied Benoit’s brain and said it was in worse shape than that of four football players who had also committed suicide. Several other wrestlers have died in recent years, many from overuse of pain killers related to the damage they suffered in the ring.
Telander asks the question: Is it worth it? Most of the athletes say they would still play the game that could cripple them. Those of us who watch violent sports know the truth (Ali has been exhibit A for several decades). We want the big hit, and athletes want the thrill and glory (and, for a few, the money). Growing awareness of head injuries may help doctors and trainers find new ways to prevent or limit injuries. Even so, as long as sports involve blows to the head through constant punching and tackling, there will be a price to pay. At least future generations of athletes will have a better sense of the risk they are taking.
I strongly recommend Telander’s series.
Here’s the third installment of Telander’s series.
In installment five, Telander interviews former teammate Jack Smeeton, who suffered several concussions and later had both knees replaced. Smeeton recognizes what football has done to his body, but he also credits the sport with helping him be successful in life as a prosecutor and defense lawyer: “Football taught me determination and tenacity and discipline. Being an attorney is a natural profession for a former football player, guys who like competition.”
Telander profiles Gerry Combs, a former teammate who has been very successful in business.
Installment 7: Jack Rudnay, a star at Northwestern and Kansas City in the NFL, who lives with constant pain from his football injuries. Even so, Rudnay does not complain. He sums up his philosophy in these words: “People get pain and suffering confused.” Tough guy.
George Keporos, the subject of installment 8, has a few memory issues, which may or may not be football related. Otherwise he is fine. His daughter, a volleyball player who recently graduated from Northwestern, will probably need knee replacement surgery in her 30s from the punishment dished out in her “non-contact” sport.
In the ninth and final installment of his series, Rick Telander asks what effect concussion and other sports injuries are having on our culture. He asks a doctor if we could be experiencing a “dumbing down” in the way men think. The doctor, a man of statistics, doesn’t what to commit to a definitive answer and will only say that it is possible. Telander then answers his own question, “It is more than possible.”
I agree with Telander. Look at current movies. Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell have built careers out of playing lovable doofuses. Earlier in his career, Jim Carrey gave us “Dumb and Dumber” and the even dumber, Ace Ventura. What do these characters and stories say about men? If we don’t respect ourselves enough to be intelligent, why should we care if a few men suffer serious brain injuries as part of our national passion, football?
Rick Telander deserves great credit for the intelligence and sensitivity he brought to this difficult topic.