Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Sports Rant

Today, being Superbowl Sunday, is a good day for a sports rant. Not too long ago, I was a pretty avid sports fan. Over time, I became disillusioned. Professional sports cause too much damage.

I first learned about the damage athletics can cause when I evaluated a soccer player who had been deafened while playing indoor soccer. (I can talk about this because his evaluation is a matter of public record.) The poor guy had no job skills at all. He'd spent his life preparing for major league sport (he was British) and he never made it. What was he going to do now that he's completely deaf?

I also learned while working on this case, that most professional soccer players suffer headaches and memory loss consistent with head injuries. They use their heads as a tool, but wear no head protection. At least football players wear helmets. Which do a fat lot of good.

Recently, there have been a series of articles about the health of retired football players. Many of them are dealing with depression, memory loss, sleep apnea, and arthritis. According to a recent New York Times article, head injuries, caused by repeated concussions, can lead to depression and suicide:

Since the former National Football League player Andre Waters killed himself in November, an explanation for his suicide has remained a mystery. But after examining remains of Mr. Waters's brain, a neuropathologist in Pittsburgh is claiming that Mr. Waters had sustained brain damage from playing football and he says that led to his depression and ultimate death.

The neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading expert in forensic pathology, determined that Mr. Waters's brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer's victims. Dr. Omalu said he believed that the damage was either caused or drastically expedited by successive concussions Mr. Waters, 44, had sustained playing football.
Waters case is similar to that of Mike Webster, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here is part of his obituary from the Sports E-Cyclopedia:
Mike Webster's durability and toughness made him a 4-time Super Bowl champion and one of the NFL's best linemen ever. However, those very qualities also might have led to a brain injury that sent him spiraling into drug use and homelessness. The bare-armed strongman nicknamed "Iron Mike'' died September 24th he was only 50. He was remembered as a great center whose sturdiness personified the Pittsburgh Steelers' championship teams and whose off-field health and drug problems saddened them.

The Steelers initially said Webster died of a heart attack but later declined to comment. Webster was diagnosed with brain damage in 1999, an injury caused by all the years of taking shots to the head. "He was one of the main reasons why we won four Super Bowls,'' Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris said. "Unfortunately, he had some turmoil and misfortune after his football career. He is now at peace.''

Notice that the Steelers initially lied about Webster's illness. I guess we wouldn't want young children asking if sports are a bad idea for them. They should, but we spend too much time telling them how wonderful athletics are.

As bad as professional athletics are for adults, what is happening to young children is even worse. The Times also has a story on a high school football player, a friend of Joseph Addai (who will play in the Superbowl today), who was paralysed in a high school game.

Less clear is the social toll that professional athletics take on us, but I still concerned about it. The American love affair with professional sports has corrupted our values. In school, athletes are often revered. Why? Athletics are entertainment and nothing more. what's so important about them? Shouldn't we teach our children to revere scholars instead?

Nah, I didn't think so.

Children grow up thinking that athletic abilities make them special. They see how much the high school quarterback is revered. Some become so obsessed with it, that they give up their childhood, practicing and playing every chance they get. As they rise up in the ranks of school and professional athletics, their sense of entitlement grows, fed by coaches who use it to motivate them. This is why so many athletes have been arrested for drug abuse and violent crime. They're taught that their athletic skills make them exempt from social rules.

Today, to be "the best" means more than practicing a lot. It means playing when hurt. This is why Andre Waters and Mike Webster suffered brain damage. It also means taking performance-enhancing drugs, and we all know what's being said about Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. Here is a good resource on the effects of steroid abuse. They are far from trivial.

This attitude has leaked down from the professional ranks, to the college ranks, to the high school ranks, and even lower. I've seen it at every level, including an 11 year old boy. Our love of sports is corrosive and it needs to stop. But, it won't until fans turn away.

Sometimes, the fans sorta get it, but then they back away. A few years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates decided they both needed new stadiums. For a while, the fans put up a fuss, but the opposition was all talk and both teams got what they wanted. They spent millions of dollars on PNC Park and Heinz Field. In the meantime, the city of Pittsburgh is fading away. It's downtown is empty. The surge in home prices of the last few years never hit Pittsburgh; there's no reason to live there. That money could have been much better spent on other things.

So, I've lost interest in sports. I'll watch the Superbowl tonight, so I don't sound like a weirdo tomorrow, but I really don't care who wins. I know a lot of people will lose.


glenn said...

For one "trained as a scientist" where is the emperical data supporting your statement that the Steelers "lied" about Webster. As any person trained in the sceintific method should know, circumstances are not proof.

While your rant may resonate regarding professional sports - which is not confined to the US. It is only a pin-prick in the effects of celebrity on society. Witness the eating disorders among young woment, which arguably bring more harm on them if not physically, then otherwise, than the harm to male teens using steroids and getting injured in organized (as opposed to casual - as you are not suggesting that kids playing on their own is also to be discouraged) sports.

Finally, for what it is worth while I do not agree with the public expenditures of $$ and resources for professional sports, I suspect that the Pittsburgh populace would disagree with us both.

I do disagree, quite strongly, that Pittsburgh is declining - property values are not the sin qua non - regarding a city's quality of life. In fact, as a former Burgher, having left in 1977, and now living in Seattle it seems that Pittsburgh today has certain quality of life attributes that are superior to Seattle.

Free Operant said...


Thanks for your comment. I have to disagree about the issue of whether or not the Steelers lied about Webster. I think they did, and the circumstances are indeed quite relevant. Since you lived in Pittsburgh, you know the Rooneys are very tied into the city. They had to know what was happening to Mike Webster.

I agree that the problems with professional sports extend beyond the US. Just look at the football (soccer) riots in Europe.

And I agree that the issue of celebrity is very much tied up in these issues. That's an excellent point.

Finally, I also lived in Pittsburgh; I left about 2 years ago, so when I was speaking about the financing of the two stadiums, I was speaking from experience. There were letters from fans in the Post-Gazette (did you know the Pgh Press went under?) and you should have heard what got said in some of the bars I went to.

The Penquins desperately need a new arena, and they're having trouble getting it, largely because of fallout from the building of the two stadiums.

I also speak with sadness about the decline of Pittsburgh. It's had bad luck. Ever since the steel industry went belly up, they've tried one thing after another. Nothing's worked. It was once a wonderful city, but it's in trouble now. I really hope the new mayor can turn things around.

But my point still stands. Spending money on new stadiums won't help the city. Improvements to transportation, health, the environment, education, and culture will have more impact on the city.

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