Tuesday, November 16, 2010

For the Love of the Game: Concussions and the Nature of Sport

The NFL is talking about concussions and what to do about them again. This comes up in every high-contact sport on a pretty frequent basis and it's a worthwhile conversation not only because concussions are bad generally, but also because it cuts to the core of sports in general. To discuss concussions is to discuss the way sports have been, are now and will be in the future, and this is a topic that we've been dancing around for a long time.

Football is a violent sport, and collision is a fundamental part of the game. This is plenty of reason for studying what happens to the human body while playing the sport, and the verdict has been pretty much unanimous - it's damaging in the extreme. I don't think that's a reason to stop playing the sport. For me, the appeal of sports in general is twofold; the benefit comes from the spirit of competition and the experience of testing and watching people stretch the limits of physical ability. This is why sports that are more contingent on equipment than physicality, like NASCAR or shooting, don't usually do much for me. The oldest and most enduring sports are those predicated on the exploration of the human body, and team sports add the element of the mind, demanding that the individual athlete read and react to his teammates' bodies. Football qua football is certainly a phenomenal test of the human body, drawing on fine motor skills, sheer brute force, mental focus and speed.

If we're assuming that sport's goal is success through the use of one's body, we then need to ask how purely dependent on the human body these sports are. If we adopt the aforementioned view because it is true of the world's oldest sports, it stands to reason that there's also something added to the formula by human sport in the context of nature - performing on natural surfaces and environments, with simple implements that could reasonably be found in nature. Though the latter implements might have been refined over time, it's the rudimentary nature that adds something to the quality of sport. However, refinements matter. The human body developed in the context of nature, and it seems natural that the body should develop in a way that helps it deal with the challenges presented by the natural world. When you change dirt and grass to Astroturf, you add speed and slip. When you change baseball bats from wood to aluminum, you add power, give and accuracy. With every equipment and surface development, you change the body mechanics involved, demand different performance from your body and change the way the game is played. The more changes you make, the further you go from the origins of sport - our human bodies against other human bodies and the natural world.

You can't really discuss alterations of athletes and their sports without talking about steroids and growth hormones. At this point, these substances are at best an open secret. Given my explanation of why I like or don't like certain sports, I'm sure it's not hard to figure out that I disapprove of steroid use, but in arguing about it with various friends of mine over the years, it was my friend Scott who had the best argument for steroid use, and I think it is particularly relevant here. He pointed out that professional athletes are paid to be the best in their respective sports, and for that reason, they have access to the best trainers, the best nutritionists, the best workout equipment, the best medical staffs and an unlimited amount of time to capitalize on those resources. His argument logically followed that steroids, as known performance enhancers, should not only be allowed but would have to be taken by any player who took his paycheck seriously. I'm not sure I'm convinced, but the argument highlights another important element of human development in sports - these athletes have access to everything possible to transform them into supermen. [NB: As high schools feed into colleges and colleges into pro leagues, it follows that these methods trickle down as ascendant athletes work to be as prepared as possible to move quickly through the ranks.] Regardless of the ethics of performance enhancing drugs, it's reasonably easy to say that they take the human body beyond its natural limits, whether by adding a foreign chemical or by increasing the amount of a hormone already found in the body. The same could be said of the trainers, equipment, nutritionists and focus of professional athletes.

We can now see alterations to the natural stage for sports and to the athletic human body itself. This means that we are - right now, at this moment - playing sports faster, harder, and in the case of contact sports, more violently than they have been played at any point in history. The human body is startlingly good at protecting itself, as evidenced by our ability to heal, our reflexes, our senses and more amorphous qualities like our ability to feel fear and pain. Still, these defenses have been developed in conjunction with nature, and as we change our physical abilities in an unnatural way, we test the limits of these protections. When we also change the playing field, the balance is shifted even further from a rough natural equilibrium.

It bears wondering why we would want to pervert human nature and the playing field this way, and I think there are basically two answers for the modern athlete. The easy one is that eternal whipping boy of pro sports: the money. Paid as extravagantly as most professional athletes are, the incentive is there to ignore the hazards and to consistently push harder, faster, higher. The more complicated answer is the same as it always has been: the love of the game. Anyone who has fallen in love with a sport knows the incredible feeling of victory wrung from every cell of your body, or of watching another human being perform a miracle with nothing but their body. Sports inspire us because they are the human body - our shared human experience - held up to the light. When you love the game, you will always be reaching for that next miracle, whatever it takes. My glasses might have a rosy tint to them here, but I think that this love of the game and its experience make the money factor possible. Without the intensity of sports to draw us in, there would be no money with which to pay these athletes, nor pay for the facilities or the equipment or any of the other accouterments that provide financial motivation. Whether directly or indirectly, it's the love of the game that keeps sports moving towards these changes.

It would be dishonest to pretend that sports have only developed new ways to be dangerous, when safety equipment and rule changes have developed as well. However, this can contribute to additional danger. Just as the mental component of team sports is essential, so is the mind of the individual athlete. When encased in modern safety equipment, it's easy to feel invincible. These materials are lightweight but incredibly solid, and this can encourage athletes to take additional risks. Safety equipment often offsets the immediate, catastrophic damages that are the stuff of nightmares, like dramatically broken bones, deep cuts or severed muscles, but its protections can encourage athletes to take risks that open the door to more insidious injuries, like concussions and other internal injuries. Just as performance enhancing drugs can develop your muscles beyond what your bones and tendons can handle, safety equipment can encourage you to take risks beyond what your body may be able to handle. This illusion of safety can be just as damaging as the increases in speed and strength that technology and evolution have created.

So where does this leave us? Does the NFL have a duty to its players to keep them safe? To be honest, I think that there is an assumed risk in contact sports that professional athletes can certainly be expected to understand and take seriously. The main problem is that I don't think it's as simple as figuring out if it's their job to keep their guys from getting concussed into an early grave. For the immediate future, I think it would be wise for players to use the concussion helmets that are available and avoid the hits that are more of a concussion promise than a threat. That's fine. But it doesn't begin to answer the larger questions about the nature of football as a sport, or even of what a sport is. It's tempting to get bogged down in the current manifestations of these questions - this happens in politics, business, economics, you name it - but if we don't stop to consider what sport is and should be, then one day the ephemeral concerns will drop away and we'll see what a shell we've been left with. These are questions worth asking...for the love of the game.

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