On Sunday someone will get hurt. They might have an inkling of pain, but they will play on. Their postgame press conference will seem slightly far away, as if someone else is answering the questions. Win or lose, someone will get hurt.
Materials science labs have developed lighter weight fabrics, foam padding and plastics. Engineers have molded form-fitting exoskeletons for today’s athletes. The results are seen in the faster running, harder hitting, and more brain injuries. Couple this lightweight equipment with regimented fitness routines, prescribed dietary plans, and constant medical monitoring and feedback and we have our celebrated gladiators. These men will enter the stadium to battle for glory on Sunday.
Those carted off with leg, shoulder, or ankle injuries might be the lucky ones. For those remaining on the field, varying levels of impact will jostle the brain, occasionally overcoming the engineered helmets and cerebral fluids that are intended to cushion the brain against impact with the skull.
I really enjoy watching football. I grew up playing backyard games of two-hand touch. But for me, living in frigid Vermont, hockey was the sport of choice. I have been concussed. Knocked silly – dizzy and blurry-eyed. As a locally celebrated gladiator on an undefeated high school team, those injuries were of little concern. Winning is what mattered then. It is what matters on Sunday.
This past year three ex-professional hockey players died at the age of twenty-eight from apparent brain injury. I guess that I’m one of the lucky one. I wasn’t quite good enough to play at the next level. I was a little too slow-footed.
For myself and for other fans of these sports, we recognize the reality that brain injuries are dangerous, that the effects are latent and little understood by science. So how can we reconcile the ‘love of the game’ and the uncertainty surrounding this issue? I guess our values could change. The open ice hit, the safety punishing the receiver, those values might need to change - a shift to less violence.
By de-emphasizing the hard hitting, while celebrating the acrobatic catches, the blazing speed rushes, and lightening fast reflexes – we could save lives.
Former Forward - Right Wing
Graduate Research Assistant
Center for Nanotechnology in Society
School of Sustainability – Arizona State University