Can we find a compromise between safety and competition?
The NFL settled a $765 million lawsuit over long-term effects of multiple concussions. Pop Warner, the world’s largest youth football organization, suffered a 9.5% drop in enrollment. In boxing, we know to expect “punchy” old fighters to have memory trouble, and when they are interviewed, the reporters are asked to be kind. And now with the rising popularity of amateur mixed-martial arts fights, we are seeing the same results as we have in boxing, as reported in the Star-Ledger.
What does this mean for men? Some could argue that this is pacification, to put it politely. The term some men use is pussification (I could write a whole ‘nother post about denigrating something we desire so much), that this is a war on manhood, that it will make us weaker if we can’t smash helmet to helmet like bighorn sheep to prove dominance. That it is in our blood to battle and defeat other men, that our DNA prods us to do this so it can spread our genetic material. That there is inherent value in deciding who can physically defeat the other, whether it is with gladius and shield, pigskin and helmet, or hands ensconced in thin, four ounce MMA gloves.
When I was young and feared fighting, I scoffed at this. I didn’t begin to enjoy contact sports until my mid-thirties, when I put away the gaming chair for a set of MMA gloves. My mother still laments the shape of my nose, which was never officially broken, but is bent in the way only a fist can offer. My doctor told me to stick to punching a bag, or other objects that don’t hit back. He put it simply: “It’s not good to get hit in the head that often.”
And it is difficult to argue with his point. Not all men are competitive, and fewer still prefer to compete in physical sport. But I found it addictive, and each Saturday morning I eschew sleeping in late to put on gear and hit the mats, grappling with fighters of all ages, sexes, and sizes. And when I skip a week or two, I find myself restless with pent-up energy, too easy to anger or find fault with others. It has become therapy for me.
But I don’t strike anymore. I’m too slow to dodge the faster punchers, too eager to eat a stiff jab and get in the pocket where I can pound the body, hook the liver and watch them flee to the corner and wilt under the barrage. Instead, I wrestle. It is just as demanding, and it is quite easy to fool yourself into thinking this is a life or death struggle when a ropey forearm snakes around your throat and cuts off the blood to your brain.
So until the doctors tell me that’s too dangerous, it’s what I do. But how far do we go to protect people from themselves? We don’t force someone to take medication unless they try to harm others. We don’t make the heart patient give up steaks and cigars. The doctor can suggest it all they want, but Americans believe everyone has the right to take the highway to hell if they so choose. But that is a choice for adults to make. Football is something of a religion in parts of the country, but how young is too young to slam polycarbonate helmets into each other and rattle still-developing brains? Should there be an age limit?
New York State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto thinks so. He is pushing for an age limit on tackle football, and some Pop Warner coaches are against it. They think that waiting until age 14 to teach kids proper tackling is too late to teach proper form, and that helmets and protective gear are enough. Even with the helmet-to-helmet ban in the NFL, in the last Saints game I watched, a defender put his head down and spun a tackler like a ragdoll with the impact. No penalty was issued. Football can teach teamwork and strategy, and the need to struggle to improve, but can it be done without brain injury? When we are seeing cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in younger and younger athletes, it’s clear that we can’t leave it to the athlete to defend themselves. The urge to compete often overcomes the instinct of self-preservation. Can we find a compromise that will protect young and adult athletes from themselves, yet keep our treasured competitions exhilarating?
— Photo USCPSC / Flickr