The sports world is in another one of those moments in the year where everything begins to crunch together at once for fans in the United States. The NBA joined the NHL this week in starting its regular season. College football enters its stretch drive, while the NFL prepares for its second half of the season. Oh, and there’s that matter of a few more baseball games to be played in San Francisco and Arlington…
But that is just the tip of a wider global iceberg looming on our horizon. Formula 1 has seen quite the turnaround, with a new leader emerging just two races from the conclusion of the 2010 calendar. The top women of tennis contest their championships, while the men wrap up tournaments around the planet in advance of their own finale. The MLS postseason is about to start, while soccer leagues throughout Europe enter the meat of their schedules. And while professional cycling saw its season conclude with the Giro di Lombardia, the introduction of the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France routes already have fans looking ahead to 2011.
I have my own challenge looming in the near future, as I get set to embark on my first attempt at book-length fiction during the month of November. National Novel Writing Month, as it is known, is a call to all writers to attempt a 50,000+ word novel from start to finish in the 30 days of next month. My wife discovered it one day surfing around the internet and convinced this skeptical writer of exclusively non-fiction pieces to expand my horizons. While the story I plan on writing is based not in the world of sports but focuses in my alternate reality as a culinary professional, there will surely be more than one inevitable reference to athletes and the games they play.
Will it pan out? Who knows? But you’re all welcome to follow my progress here as I post chapters daily starting on Monday. Any and all feedback is encouraged. Will I hit a dinger out of the ballpark and find a parallel calling as a writer? Or will I look as inept in my attempt as Michael Jordan in a Birmingham uniform? Only time will tell, but life is all about new challenges. We become stagnant when we fail to seize those opportunities for growth.
I will be doing my damnedest to prevent the novel from interfering with this column and all my other coverage, though, so don’t fret on that count. Fiction can’t steal away the passion of this Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America. Besides, I might just find myself needing the comfort of this column to right myself after becoming disoriented with the world of make-believe!
Things, though, are going to look a little different. We might have more of a streamlined word count to the column; I’ve been working on firing up another project (more later) that will help keep you in the know daily and subsequently appear in shorter form here. One way or another, I’ll be covering as much as possible from around the globe. So let’s dive right in with our look at the wider world of sports and the week ahead as November draws near…
BRAINS AT RISK REGARDLESS OF SPORT
So why did I feel compelled to discuss my own project completely unrelated to sports? Well, if the expansion of ourselves is the loftiest of goals, the converse truth would be that the erosion of our bodies and minds is the basest of pursuits. We revere athletics as the realm of the fit and healthy, a representation of the best possible physical specimens of the human race. But what good is that physique if the mind inside has been rendered so gelatinous as to be unable to control the body?
I am speaking, of course, about concussions. They’ve been all over the news a lot in the past few weeks, thanks to jarring hits in the NFL that left their recipients (and even in cases the delivery man) unconscious on the turf. Football has a long and sad history of head trauma, but that fact is really not that surprising. After all, these are super-grown men colliding at high speeds over and over again every Sunday for our enjoyment.
But what about the youth who emulate their heroes week after week, from Pop Warner games on up through high school? While we know the pros are getting the best equipment their money (and foolish pride, in many cases) chooses to buy, kids at all levels are putting their noggins into brain buckets that wouldn’t be fit to protect your head from a single smack. But year after year, that’s the equipment they get. Alan Schwarz of the New York Times just put out one hell of an investigatory piece into this reality, the lack of oversight into the actual protective capabilities of the equipment players wear.
Equipment only goes so far, though. Whether it is in hockey (where the terror of heads colliding with ice is an added possibility) or football or even a sport like rugby, rules can be legislated into the game to prevent these injuries from occuring — and they’ll still occur. That’s not to conjure an excuse for the laxity, but it’s about time that something is at least attempted in furthering the progress of protective gear.
And what we also forget is that concussions can happen in any sport. Take soccer, for instance. SI’s Grant Wahl recently wrote about the jarring prevalence of head trauma in a sport where padding is non-existent around the athletes’ skulls. While the NFL, colleges and even high schools have taken steps to better monitor football players when they show signs of concussions, the same is still sadly untrue in soccer and other sports. Take this excerpt, for one example:
“In a game against the Los Angeles Galaxy (on August 30, 2008), Twellman beat goalkeeper Steve Cronin to a cross and scored, only for Cronin’s fist to slam Twellman in the jaw like a sledgehammer. Twellman staggered and told a teammate that he had a concussion, but he was allowed to stay in the game and played eight more weeks despite dizziness, nausea and headaches.”
We have a mentality in sports that all you have to do is gut it out and things will be fine. We decry performance-enhancing drugs but don’t bat an eyelash when our superstars are popping painkillers to stay on the field and grunt through excruciating pain for our benefit. Everyone from spectators to coaches to fellow players all expect that an injured player just needs a few minutes to shake things off, that getting one’s bell rung is cause for minor concern. But the long-term repercussions are only now being understood about how these injuries to the mission control of our entire body affect those who experience them.
We’ll never solve the problem of injuries in sports unless we become such a vicarious society that digital representations of athletes controlled by guys with wireless controllers competing as one team against another will capture our imagination enough to watch. (Oh, damn… that already happens! How many more years until the NFL just becomes one big Madden league on a big screen?) Sports are as much about perseverance as they are about the glory, and that’s something no video game will ever be able to show us. It is often the only identifying characteristic we have in common with our sports heroes — life in any direction is all about seeing how you deal with being tossed to the turf and how you bounce back to carry on, whether you’re the guy getting bashed into or bashing something with your head or taking a nasty spill or the guy in the stands or on his couch watching it all happen.
We shouldn’t dampen our excitement for watching, but we must always be cognizant of the fact that these are real human beings we watch in our favorite sports. Boo, cheer, but realize that the pain is real and sometimes the smallest of bumps or spills can often be the most damaging in the long run. Be careful out there… bones heal, but the brain is like fruit — you’re not recovering from a bad bruise allowed to be reaggravated…