Friday, December 25, 2009

Football and sports in general - the other side

We see it on TV all the time. Parents dreaming of their kids playing football and when this dream is fulfilled, they are standing there, watching their rising stars, with tears in their eyes.

High School football players, playing for a deceased brother or sister --- or loved one with a backdrop of stands filled with cheering people.

Sunday afternoon stopping while everyone gathers around the big tube watching the exciting finish to a professional football game.

We hear bits and pieces... football players making big bucks, 500 thousand a year or more. We see young athletes on TV smilingly saying how they are so happy to be a part of a professional football team. A young gymnast saying how her dream is to be a part of the Olympic team...

But over the years, I've heard some other small voices here and there. Things which are unsettling, like how a large percentage of kids who play High School football, sustain back and knee injuries which plague them for life.

A lone movie depicting football as an ultra rough game, injuring many players.

Joan Ryan's book "LITTLE GIRLS IN PRETTY BOXES" depicting the sports of gymnastics and figure skating as exploitive and taking a toll on the bodies of those who are barely teenagers. A gymnast, here and there dying of a head injury. Things none of us who love sports really want to hear.

I did not allow our son to participate in any sports besides swimming (which he did not like!). And I, myself, only did one swimming competition. But like everyone else, I love watching sports on TV.

What does happen to those who achieve the ultimate dream of playing professional football?

Finally one man is breaking the silence.

Former NFL star, David Pear, is speaking out. Pear played ball for Washington University and then, went on to play with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and finally was with the Oakland Raiders when they won the Super Bowl.

And David told a Sports Illustrator writer in a phone interview, recently, that he's sorry he ever played football and sends a warning to parents to not allow their children to EVER play football.

David explained that at the age of 56, he's a physical train-wreck. He's had multiple surgeries and suffers from pain throughout his body:

His neck hurts. His hips hurt. His knees hurt. His feet hurt. When he wakes up in the morning, pain shoots through his body. When he goes to sleep at night, pain shoots through his body.

David also walks with a cane - when he walks which isn't that much. And he suffers from vertigo and memory loss, he says.

He pointed out several other former NFL players who are in wheelchairs or in other ways, very disabled and all from football.

Football isn't the only sport which creates a lot of permanent injury. In following gymnastics, I remember Olympian JC Phelps requiring joint replacements at the tender age of 18 and a medical provider remarking that many gymnasts have the bones of a 70 year old before they reach the age of 20. A member of the gold medal winning Olympic gymnastics team telling reporters she (at the age of 22) no longer does gymnastics because her "body is too broken".

Tara Lipinski who won the Olympic gold medal for figure skating in 1998, dropped out of skating soon after. After a few surgeries on her hip and a serious back injury, she had to hang up her skates for life.

We never hear about those people - only about the ones who survive like Dorothy Hamill who skated into her 50's but it's not clear whether any of today's skaters who are required to do several triple jumps just to compete will survive to their 50's still on the ice. And did anyone notice that most gymnasts retire from participation after 1 or 2 Olympics? Does anyone care?

Elite Sports in general are more and more demanding and more and more hard on the bodies of those who participate also.

And some sports are overly demanding on the athletes even in the non elite arena - like football. For example how many people who "dream" of running marathons realize that the ambulances waiting in the background ARE there for more than decoration and that often, at least one person dies during or after doing a marathon. That seems a side of the story we never hear.

Don't get me wrong - I think sports are great - and I do confess that although I do not watch football, I do enjoy watching figure skating and gymnastics. How do I calm my niggling conscience that those who are so enjoyable to watch are quite literally giving their lives and health for my entertainment? Like the typical sports fan, I guess - I remind myself that they volunteered. I wouldn't want to do it myself but ...

The NFL gave Dave Pear, a yearly disability pay but not before several years in court and his pay is not enough to compensate for the constant pain he suffers, he told the SI reporter.

Seems like a no brainer that the human body was not made to throw around as is done in football, doesn't it? And yet, so many kids continue to go through hoops to become a part of a football team as parents and friends watch proudly because this is a story no one really wants to hear.

We don't even give folks "informed consent" for elective medical procedures, many of which bite hard after a few years so why should we consider "informed consent" for sports like football? Unfortunately, football is such a part of the American entertainment picture and considering that "informed consent" might greatly cut down the numbers of those who wish to participate, I suspect we will not hear more than a few lone voices crying out about the reality of it, in the near future.

Most of the injured ones will hang around in the background, quietly suffering.

I am reminded of the movie "The Matrix" where people live in a glamorous virtual reality while they waste away in tanks, their very lives being sucked out by a large machine. Art often reflects reality. Perhaps we should pay more attention to it.