Friday, February 5, 2010

Super Bowl

Interesting discussion as Super Bowl Sunday approaches about what should be done about the increasing violence of the game. Football has always been a violent game but with the players getting bigger and stronger and faster, the collisions on the field are getting closer to being impossible to survive without injury. When I played football ( it was not the era of leather helmets but close) there was no strength conditioning or supplements but there was an emphasis on winning at all costs. More than one player on my team came over to the sideline and spit some teeth out before he went back in to play. One tight end I played with played most of a game with a broken arm. A fullback came out after he broke a leg. If you were injured the code of honor said you had to keep playing until they dragged you out. Coaches did not want to hear about your injury. If "your bell was rung" it was part of the game and you were expected to "shake it off" and get back in there. I must not have had my bell rung too many times because I can still remember hot summer practices where we showed toughness by not drinking any water, with the coaches approval.

If you watch any division one or pro football today, you are aware of how many injuries occur in every game. You see several concussions in a season of football and there are many you don't see. You see one or two spinal chord injuries every season. Pro football is just starting to admit what the game's violence is doing to the players longterm health. But, football players seem to live for the moment. Most of them only play for a few years and then they deal with sometimes crippling injuries that make them very old before their time. And pro football players are just a tiny percentage of all the players from Pop Warner leagues up through college programs. No one really knows how many injuries there are those levels, how many have had their "bells rung".

Football has passed baseball as America's favorite spectator sport. Needless to say, the speed and violence is a major reason why. ESPN used to have a segment called Jacked Up where they highlighted the hardest, most spectacular hits from the previous Sunday's games. I think, due to serious injury, they have cancelled that segment. But, that's what fans want to see as the collision is replayed over and over. Hard to remember that those are people out there and no one no matter how conditioned can withstand those kinds of collisions without sustaining longterm negative health effects.

The NFL is undertaking new studies of concussions and mandating new rules such as a player cannot return to a game in which he experienced a concussion. He must have a doctors ok before he can play in the next game. Even, this season a couple of high profile players like Ben Roethlesberger, quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, were called out by their team mates when they did not return to play in the next game after a concussion. To play injured is the way the game is played. You can pay for it later. The NFL is considering other rule changes such as banning the defensive lineman's three point stance to prevent them from firing out with their heads low and sustaining continuous helmet to helmet impacts which may not cause concussions but jar the brain many times during a game. But, if those changes take effect, will it change the nature of the game so much, fans will not like it? Will it still be football?

New equipment is being researched, better shock absorbing helmets are being studied by the NFL. But what about youth leagues and high schools which are not as well funded as the NFL?

Football is America's game. This Sunday the Super Bowl will be the most watched tv show of the year. Commercial time is the most expensive of any broadcast all year. Church services will be modified so as not to miss the game. Some churches cancel their service and just show the game (as an outreach to men, of course).

Our enjoyment of the game comes at what price, however. The Colts and the Saints may not be the two best teams; they are just the ones who are healthiest this time of the year. The Colts defensive end, Dwight Freeny, is injured and may not play and if he is not on the field some say it will be the difference maker as to who wins. Football may have become too successful; the players too good, too strong, too fast. The game may have to be changed too much to make it safer. The winner of the game is often the team with more of its starters left standing when the game winds down. Like a gladiatorial contest.