While I didn’t intend to write a post about brain injury in sport, I was inspired to write it based on some events in the NHL playoffs. Since it’s not my point to dissect the danger of the two hits, I won’t spend much time on them. In fact, I’ll just let share the links to the Gryba hit on Eller and the Abdelkader hit on Lydman. Seriously, whether I think either of those hits was clean or delivered with malicious intent is not, in any way, the basis or inspiration for this post. What is, is the idea that we – the North American contact sports-loving public – have all but abdicated our right to a free conscience. Whether either hitter was deserving of the suspension they have subsequently received, depends not on the hit they delivered, but on which team you cheer for (or against), or whether or not you like seeing big hits in hockey. It has nothing to do with what happened.
Some people don’t like where the NHL or NFL are heading; the frequency with which penalties are called when a player hits anywhere near an opposing player’s head. I don’t think that either of these two leagues, NHL and NFL, understand the concept of risk and reward. Hard hitting contact sports are so popular because they exhibit risk in a raw form. That’s probably why some/many of the athletes who make it to the highest levels get into the types of trouble they do. We watch news about multi-millionaire athletes who crash Porsches or who get arrested, and we may think “why would someone with so much to lose risk so much?” However, the athletes actually made logical (that doesn’t necessarily mean good) decisions. They do what all of us do before making most decisions. They, however briefly, look at their risk/reward histories plus their confidence (which is unvaryingly high), and make the relatively clear choice that they should take the risk. Their risk/reward histories include their risky decisions to go all in into their sport, play with injuries, among others, and their rewards include playing a sport professionally, their lifestyles, the money, among others. You sometimes hear people who aren’t professional athletes say that they wonder if they could’ve made it if they went all in. These pro athletes took the risk when it was presented. For every athlete who took a big risk and made it big, there are many, many more, who took the big risks and it didn’t work out and had bad consequences. If taking a big risk always meant good things happened, it wouldn’t be a ‘risk’ at all. Hindsight takes away risks, or puts risks in perspective, and it’s why people pay to watch pro athletes.
However, it’s also why the NHL and NFL are not perpetual money machines. These leagues, like their players, have a risk/reward ratio. Their reward has been to make millions, billions of dollars off the risk accepted by young men, who as we’ve seen, are predisposed to take it. Still, their is one major risk I haven’t mentioned; an brief career – for the athletes – or a brief existence – for contact sports leagues. It’s obvious why pro contact sports are played primarily by men in their 20s, and the leagues should take note. The athletes stop when their bodies can’t take any more strain, and when they can no longer convince themselves that the risk/reward ratio looks good. Likewise, these leagues will have to make similar decisions about the brand of sport they choose to exhibit. I’m not going to say that these leagues should just shut down now, but in act of decency to players and fans, how about they not pretend the sport they’re promoting is risk-free, good, clean fun? Both sports are brutal. That doesn’t mean they’re not fun to watch or that I don’t like watching them, but, instead of providing an excellent product/service in many markets, they’re providing a poorer product/service in too many markets. This product/service is poorer because it’s delivered by only the best. Not the elite. For sports with such high risks, the highest levels of player talent, strength, endurance and intelligent play should be pursued. Unfortunately, this won’t happen. There’s too much money to be made.
In the end, the only choice facing these two leagues is that of the type of sport they’ll show; a highly regulated game in which contact is not necessarily banned, but is discouraged, or a game in which careers are generally shorter, contact is celebrated and serious injuries are par for the course. Obviously, these games will attract different fan bases, and the second option comes with onerous legal and insurance costs. That’s why I think the leagues are headed to option one. In geometry, an asymptote of a curve is a line such that the distance between the curve and the line approaches zero, but never touches. Contact in he NHL and NFL are on that curve. Right now they’re relatively high on the curve, such that contact is nowhere near zero, but as time passes, injuries build and memories fade, I think contact will approach zero and these leagues will have to deal with the repercussions; a smaller fan base, reduced revenue, and ultimately, their sustainability. Or maybe, people will watch in the same numbers, with the same enthusiasm because the contact we see today and in recent years, will no longer be important or necessary to the fans and players.
Whether or not fans want to admit it, we’re seeing the beginning of that whole process now. The debate over the two hits mentioned above, or any other hits for that matter, is divided relatively strictly between supporters of the respective teams, and less by whether or not the hits broke NHL rules or a some moral standard about hitting, or the reality of wrong place, wrong time. It’s not the hit or the consequences to the player who was hit that really inspires debate or anger (on both sides). It’s the punishment – penalty and/or suspension – or lack thereof, and the effect that has on a team, that really fuels discussion.
Even the current focus on brain injuries everywhere in society hasn’t increased awareness and understanding of the issue to a sizeable majority of the public. If I hadn’t been brain injured, I don’t know how much I would know about it either. For the most part, brain injuries are viewed as either, a bodily injury like any another, or one that is rare and obvious. This lack of wide spread understanding is why hits causing brain injuries are so easily politicized by fans to advocate for ‘the rules’ or for some moral high ground. For now, brain injuries are considered the simple price of playing contact sports and as such, are just another point to show the injustice done to ‘my team’ by some unfair interpretation of the rules. That’s how any debate about the seriousness of brain injuries ends, allowing fans on both sides to feel vindicated. Yet, no progress on the real issue is made.
To know anything about brain injury, fans, players and the general public must genuinely want to know. Otherwise, one of the most important issues that sports has ever faced is simply reduced to sound bites.