Monday, August 22, 2011

Playing Games with Brain Injuries

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I'm not a sports fan.

Yet I sometimes play one when watching TV!

Last night, after a stressful week of family issues, my father and I watched the Dallas Cowboys (that's football, to all y'all laymen out there) play the San Diego Chargers in their nationally-televised pre-season game.

Normally, if I watch sports, I watch baseball, where you can get some genuine intrigue and the athletes have skills I can appreciate. In my estimation, however, there's no better way to let your brain vegetate than watching professional football. I clarify the level of football because, I have to admit, college games can be far more interesting than watching multi-millionaires pushing each other up and down a field.

And last night's game was no exception. The Cowboys still seemed to be back at training camp, only managing to put seven points on the board to San Diego's 20. Actually, Dallas could have had at least 13, if the touchdown by Phillip Tanner had counted for anything.

A running back, Tanner scrambled to extricate himself from a pile of Chargers during one down and in the process, lost his helmet. But he managed to escape and make a crowd-loving run to the end zone for some badly-needed Dallas points.

To the home crowd's chagrin, however, a new rule in the NFL designed to address the rising awareness of brain injury in the sport meant that when Tanner lost his helmet, the play was over. In fact, not only did the touchdown not count, Dallas was penalized 5 yards for a separate infraction they committed on the play.

Up in the broadcasters' booth, however, announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth were lavishing praise on Tanner, gushing about his enthusiasm and stubbornness, being so eager by running the ball even after losing his helmet. That kind of driven, goal-oriented athleticism makes a great player, they crowed.

All this adulation, ironically, even after some long-winded comments earlier in the same game about the NFL's new concussion-risk rules when San Diego's Malcom Floyd was taken out in the first half after suffering one. And even despite Collinsworth's reputation as an advocate for brain-trauma prevention in the NFL.

Last year, the New York Times quoted Collinsworth, a longtime youth league coach, as questioning the suitability of football as a sport for children:

“'This is a league that we’ve always celebrated the biggest hits and the bone-jarring blows, but you can’t hide from the evidence anymore,'” Collinsworth, in a telephone interview, said regarding the short- and long-term effects of football head trauma. “'We’re talking about the very essence of the game. I’d be less than honest if I said I didn’t have my doubts as to whether my children should be playing football.'”

What a curious thing for a football announcer to say!

After decades of phenomenal popularity, America's lionized football industry has begun to face a dark reality that the physical brutality for which it is so celebrated can penalize its players with irreversible brain injuries. The trauma players suffer despite state-of-the-art helmets and other protective gear can return to haunt them in the form of mental illnesses later in life. Speaking as a person who's watching a loved one lapse into the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, I would think the NFL would want to do everything it can to help its players avoid anything that could precipitate a similar diagnosis.

Broken bones are one thing. A damaged brain is something else entirely.

So to hear Collinsworth and Michaels cheering Tanner for his tenacity in running the ball even without a helmet sounds disingenuous at best. We saw live video of Tanner's teammates congratulating him for what medical experts would say was a stupid move. Upon losing his helmet, Tanner should first have known that the play was over, but even if instinct had compelled him to make a run for the end zone, his own awareness for his physical safety should have been equally strong, urging him to let the play end.

Is it good enough that Tanner kept going, risking injury to a naked head when everybody else on the field still had their helmets on? Is such bravado in the face of such risk worthy of admiration? Should sports writers, commenting today on the play, be casting the NFL's new rule about helmets in such a somber tone, considering how helpful a touchdown would have been for the Cowboys?

How herioc does Tanner's success at reaching the end zone become when you realize that everybody else on the field likely assumed the play was over the minute his helmet came off? How strenuously did the Chargers try to stop him after that? Even though, admittedly, the chances of Tanner getting walloped in this short run and suffering a head injury weren't great, is this really something anybody can brag about or uphold as an example of gritty determination?

I hope that today, Tanner has reconsidered his impetuousness and at least resigned himself to a rule that could, in some future game, save his life. Or at least his mental health. Hopefully, other players and coaches are using last night's incident as a teachable moment today, reminding themselves of the important protection that helmets provide, even thought that protection isn't failsafe.

On the topic of head injuries in sports, NBC sports writer Gregg Rosenthal wrote an opinion column on July 4, 2010, pontificating that "Americans, by our very nature, take risks. And if we didn’t take risks, we wouldn’t be celebrating 234 years of independence today."

With all due respect to sports lovers, taking risks for establishing a democracy, building the Hoover Dam, and engineering the Space Shuttle can hardly be compared with playing football without a helmet.

Let's have some real-life perspective here, people!

It's this type of blind, consuming reverence for sports that keeps me from taking much of it too seriously.

Although meanwhile, I'm saddened that too many people don't take brain injuries in sports more seriously.

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