It is interesting how society views sport.
Most people are able to separate out the humanity of the athletes from the action taking place in front of them. After covering sports for the better part of 14 years before moving into the managing editor’s chair and being a failed athlete growing up, I have seen all sides of this and am as guilty as anyone for getting lost in the illusion.
We do not like to think of our entertainment pieces as weak or fallible physically. They are supposed to be able to fight through whatever injury comes their way, lest they be known as soft or wimps or by other more derogatory monikers.
Toughness makes for a better story, it helps us create legends that will be passed down for generations
The leagues which run sport at the highest level refuse to admit publicly, or to their stock, the potential dangers of their sport.
Both football and hockey leagues have been hammered by lawsuits about the refusal to disclose or accept information about the long-term effects of head injuries to their athletes and improperly rushing them back into action, though simultaneously introducing new rules to help prevent these incidents.
I can understand both ends of the argument to a large degree.
Up until the last 10 or 15 years, there was very little known about the long-term effects of concussions and even less of an understanding by the broader public.
It used to be you got your bell rung and your coach would tell you to shake it off and get back out there.
In my final year of hockey at our annual midget tournament in Kitscoty in 2000, I was cross-checked over the head as I went to go hit another player. I was diagnosed with my sixth concussion, five of which are from playing hockey.
My coach was floored that I was going to be on the sideline at all, incredulously saying, “In all my years of coaching I have never had a player miss any time because of a head injury.”
I missed the next six weeks and still came back too early. To this day I still suffer effects from my concussions.
That was one incident, but I know it is a story that can be repeated many times in many different sports.
While I do expect the major sports leagues had better information than my minor hockey coaches at that point in time, the culture of being uber-tough and fighting through it was still wide-spread and the science they had was still not great.
The NHL and NFL have a long list of former players who continue to suffer the consequences of a career in their respective vocations, and an unfortunate list of those who have died, unable to cope with those ailments.
The other end of it is, these sports have always been dangerous and the possibility of life-altering injuries has always been a real risk. This is something athletes have long known, even if they refuse to acknowledge it. Everything from broken bones to blown-out knees to paralysis, especially in contact sports, are strong likelihoods. Stories of taking pain killers leading to drug abuse in dealing with these injuries go back a long way. Head injuries are just the latest risk added to the pile.
It is an ugly truth.
While the leagues should support those athletes who helped build them into billion dollar empires to a greater degree, athletes pleading ignorance to the potential risks — regardless of the sport — is tough to swallow.
But here’s the greater question, do we as fans really care how the sausage is made?
We made athletes like Lawrence Taylor and Scott Stevens legends because of their aggressive, predatory style. Enforcers like Bob Probert, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard were fan favourites, and not because of their offensive abilities. While some, like my wife, become distressed when a fight breaks out, many more rise to their feet in anticipation, including myself.
Combat sports have always held a high place in society, pre-dating the days of gladiators fighting in coliseums. In the last 100 years boxing has given way to mixed martial arts, which is supposed to be a less damaging sport to the athletes because it focuses on technique and submissions — but talk to the average fan and they want to see the big knockout. Georges St-Pierre was one of the two biggest names in the sport for several years, but he was roundly criticized because of his inability to finish an opponent with a knockout.
It is a delicate balance that must be weighed by all parties: what are athletes willing to accept as risks for the millions of dollars they could potentially earn? How much of a blind eye are the owners willing to turn? And what are we as fans ready to accept as lives being damaged all for our amusement?