Leaving the Dangerous Games

Is that word I reach for, that linking verb I dearly need to marry two complementary thoughts now up in the air like the soccer ball that bounced off my head after delivering a 150 g-force blow? What exactly was the cost, if any, for that scrawny thirteen-year-old heading a heavy, mud-thickened leather soccer ball during a neighborhood scrum in a North London park? Or later with a club in Castle Shannon, Pennsylvania, heading what seemed an even heavier ball generously coated with a layer of East Coast weather? Or even later at that state school in Indiana, PA, where I became coach and heading instructor for the college’s first soccer team comprised of players from the four corners? Was there any price?

I’m beginning a difficult and self-conscious withdrawal from watching sports that have known links to brain injuries and debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s. It has not been difficult to eliminate the New York Giants or Jets from my television viewing schedule because they are so bad, but pulling the plug on my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers will be much harder. My first stop in America was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I soon identified with the gritty Steelers and their work ethic. A stint as a crane operator in a local steel mill only made the psychological identification more complete. Who would not love a defensive line named The Steel Curtain, who helped the team win four Super Bowls between 1974 and 1979?

I still remember all the linemen, especially the center, Iron Mike Webster, who were central to the Steelers’ successes. He died in 2002 from a heart attack at age 50. An autopsy showed that he had severe brain damage. A doctor suggested the trauma to Webster’s brain would be the equivalent of 25,000 auto crashes over his playing career. Before his death, Webster reportedly had to shoot himself repeatedly into unconsciousness with a stun gun to get some sleep.

Just Google “Pittsburgh Steelers’ brain damage” and you will find a gallery of players who have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The National Football League has created an $800 million settlement fund to compensate players and study brain injuries. This is simply the price of doing business. I’ve read that football has the eight top-rated television shows in terms of viewership. It will take more than brain injuries to slow that down. The basic facts will remain. A professional football player is 19X more likely to suffer brain damage than the average American.

Leaving boxing is much easier than leaving football. I grew up watching with my father televised bouts of Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson. I loved boxing and sparred in high school, college and the military, but usually with head gear. I was a Muhammad Ali camp follower for a time, frequenting his training camp in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania when he was preparing to fight Joe Frazier and George Foreman. He showed more courage in his refusal to be drafted than any politician during the Vietnam War. I have remained a fan long after he retired.

Watching Ali’s slow decline from the effects of Parkinson’s, brought on by boxing and especially boxing too long, is heartbreaking. So too is knowing that, according to the Association of Neurological Surgeons, 90% of boxers will suffer a brain injury of some kind during their careers. Perhaps 25% of these will suffer full-blown dementia. Wearing head gear and using heavier gloves would significantly reduce these injuries but that is not the scene the customers pay for. Fortunately, the American public seems to be turning away from boxing because of its visceral brutality, with China and countries in Southeast Asia picking up the slack. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has become the new crowd pleaser but, even though the bouts are shorter, one-third end in knockouts. According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, because of this outcome, MMA fighters are likely to suffer more brain injuries than traditional boxers.

I will conclude where I started: with English football or soccer. In recent, well-publicized discussions about brain injuries soccer has made the list because heading the ball has been shown to affect cognitive functioning such as memory and planning. There are remedies that don’t affect the fundamental flow of the game. Doctors recommend that young players do not head the ball before age fourteen. I’ve noticed the English Premier League has been strict the last year or so, instructing non-coaching medical personnel to remove a player who shows signs of a concussion from heading the ball or a crack of heads. I’ve observed many such instances.

My new sports menu won’t be perfect. During the upcoming holidays I’ll probably sneak in a few quarters of football, but I’m relieved my beloved Steelers won’t be in the Super Bowl. But knowing the data about football and brain injuries, I cannot watch games with my earlier relish. So I’m learning to love English football all over again, perhaps because I’m older and trying to outgrow my smash-mouth youth. I’ll settle into the aesthetics of this beautiful game, confident that any damage will be largely confined to the calf and groin or body blows when players fall to the pitch like a swan.

In exhorting friends to follow my example I note that professional soccer players usually run the equivalent of a 10K race during a 90-minute game. One friend responded that, for him, watching soccer was like watching paint dry.

I’m going to be the loneliest man in town.

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