Monday, October 25, 2010

The Costs of Winning

The Monday morning news just a week ago included a segment on 'a weekend of rough hits' in the NFL, and the story of a Rutgers player who has been left paralyzed from the neck down after a game that Saturday. Footage revealed him down on the ground, but more painful to watch were the clips of some of the NFL hits -- the sudden, hard-hitting attack, the heads whipping back, the bodies flattened, frozen. Men doing their jobs. Making effective hits, apparently illegal (using helmets). Taking opponents out with their adrenaline high, their pumping testosterone, that driving mentality to win, dominate. I guess that's why they get paid. But not the Rutgers student.

Eric LeGrand is a 20 year-old junior, and his injury occurred in the process of tackling an opponent, not brutally, but one where the position of his head at the time of impact coupled with their speed and weight left no cushion for his spinal column. An accident of sorts. Just like that, with little more that 5 minutes left in the game, his life as he's known it is yanked. Even if he is able to walk again. Eric's story, and all the others I've heard in recent years involving severe injuries of college football players, move me to pray that these young men and their families are carried by Spirit and the loving support of others through this heartbreak.

I am also filled with gratitude, once again, for my son's decision to give up playing football after his post-high school year of playing. He was an offensive and defensive player, and that year, after scoring two touchdowns, a tackle on him broke his leg. He felt it was a 'dirty' tackle, though I never really understand the logistics of that, but it cost him. Both his dad and I were at that game, watching as he was taken off the field on a stretcher. But he was moving. He never said outright why he decided to forgo the interest of several colleges interested in his playing football for them, but I imagine that the idea of hitting and being hit by beefier guys had no appeal. And I'm sure he did not want to chance being sidelined again during basketball season because of an injury. His decision to give up football did not come easy for him. He took criticism from his dad over it, which hurt him, but he held his ground, followed his own wisdom. I was and am proud of him, as is his dad. I was also relieved.

I am a huge fan of collegiate sports, mostly basketball. At times I may have been too avid in my cheering at my son's basketball, softball, and football games over the years. Once an athlete myself, I am not opposed to competitive play, and understand that risk of injuries is part of playing a sport. But the growing evidence about the long term impact of the concussions that NFL players endure, often with disastrous endings, requires rethinking the practices and policies that encourage men to 'man up' and play with injuries, to 'take out' opponents with brutal hits, or abuse steroids. It requires those of us who fill up stadiums and rock TV network ratings during game time to re-think our participation in keeping these practices going. Money goes far, but only so far when you're left with a damaged brain, a broken body,and millions of spectators who've long forgotten your name.

I watched a recent interview of Eric on his final day of training camp. He was excited about the upcoming season and a couple days of being home with his family. He was looking forward to salmon and rice, a favorite home cooked meal of his mom's. His mom was at the game that day. I pray for a miracle and change.

Photo courtesy of Star Ledger