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.
BRAINS AT RISK REGARDLESS OF SPORT
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…
TOOLING AROUND THE NET…
- A legal performance-enhancing drink (Tom Farrey/E:60/27 October 2010) – I’ll talk more about doping in the next segment, but we are often hypocrites when it comes to the chemicals we willingly put into our own bodies and the ones we regulate in athletes. Look no further than one guaranteed performance enhancer that gets absolutely no regulation in the marketplace: caffeine. Now I’ll be the first to extol the benefits of caffeine, and lord knows I’ve had my fair share of binges on the stuff. Hell, I’m rolling on the good stuff right now. But Farrey’s look into the industry of energy drinks is quite a telling tale of what we’re really putting into our bodies when we reach for another giant can of sugar and water and that powdery white zing.
- Players’ drinks “spiked by rival” (The Sun/20 October 2010) – Speaking of spiked drinks, why don’t we move on to this little ditty? This link is as much for the accompanying video as the actual writing. In Peru, rival teams were competing in a playoff for promotion up the rungs of the step system that is the staple of most domestic leagues. Hijos de Acosvinchos watched as four of its players collapsed to the turf after being given a drink that was later discovered to contain tranquilizers. It’s a sad commentary, but throughout history cheating has as much entailed putting your opponent at a disadvantage as it has seeking out your own advantage.
- The Old Ballgame (Tim Marchman/Slate.com/22 October 2010) — Why’d I include baseball, a thoroughly traditional pastime here in the United States, in the readings for this week’s column? Well… we’ve honestly got two teams who have made it to the World Series in a way that has helped redefine what the salary structure could look like in the sport. Marchman’s piece details the NL participant, who in these parts has plenty of fans amongst the baseball-following populace. It’s a great look at “how the San Francisco Giants are winning with a bunch of creaky, mediocre veterans”. It’s a fun read, I thought, something to chew on as you watch the Rangers take on the Giants for baseball supremacy…
- What does the Ballon d’Or say about English football? (Phil Minshull/BBC Sport/26 October 2010) – Minshull, writing primarily for a British audience and/or a group that follows English Premier League soccer primarily, discusses in this piece the lack of EPL players (3 out of the 23 short-listers) for the Ballon d’Or as world footballer of the year. But it was this line that seemed most telling to me: “In fact, all 23 men on the list play at European clubs. The breakdown is 11 players currently in La Liga; five in the Bundesliga, all at Bayern Munich; four in Serie A, again a very one-dimensional selection with the quartet all coming from Inter Milan; and, as mentioned, three from the Premier League.” The fact that these four leagues contain all the world’s soccer is quite a fascinating phenomenon. No longer can even a club like Benfica or Ajax or any of the other European champions past and present really challenge the stranglehold the big four have on the sport. Forget those numbers above, which indicate that one player might’ve come from a team outside the four: Asamoah Gyan, the Ghanaian who played for Rennes in France last year, is now with Sunderland in the EPL…
A NICKEL’S WORTH…
So I’m trying out something a little different. I’ve started a nightly blog over in our forum here at Sports Nickel where you can keep up with what I’ve had swirling around this non-traditional brain of mine during the day. I’ll be trying to have something online every night, so you’ll have something to check out every morning (or for you night owls, expect something up before, oh… I’ll try to be on before 1:00 am here on the Pacific coast). You’ll get my five favorite excerpts from the week’s output here from now on, so tuck into the fresh new phase of the column’s development! (Maybe one of these days I’ll even get video going!)
When Rules Get Out of Control (Friday/22 October)– With October being Cancer Awareness Month, we’ve seen lots of sports leagues doing their part to raise funds for and bring awareness to various cancer foundations across the country. Washington high-school football officials decided to do their part as well, donating last week’s game checks en masse to the Komen Foundation… and using pink whistles during the games. Now these officials might be in trouble for their actions… and why? Because the Washington Officials Association says they didn’t ask for permission beforehand. WOA chairman Todd Stordahl had to say: “They chose not to ask for permission, not to go the right route. It sends the wrong message to kids that are playing the game. ‘If they broke the rules why can’t I do the same.’” Problem is, I’ve been surfing around the WOA website for the past 45 minutes and I can’t find a single instance specifically mandating black as the only whistle color permitted…. READ MORE HERE
An Unfortunate Passing in Open Water (Saturday/23 October) — You know, it’s always weird to think about someone barely younger than yourself dying. Whether you are 17 or 77, it’s never an easy thing seeing a contemporary pass away. I may be just 27, but I’ve had to come to grips with death before in my life. And whether it was someone near and dear to me, a cherished elder or even my peer as has been the case in the past, it is never an easy concept to fathom. But seeing a contemporary pass away puts things into real perspective. Even when it is someone you’ve never known, and barely followed throughout his or her lifetime, when a person who is just about your age passes from this world into whatever may sit on the horizon beyond it really jars things and makes you ponder the realities of mortality. I was at work today when I got a text message from fellow Sports Nickel writer Dan Vachalek– Fran Crippen had just died in the FINA Open Water 10km World Cup off the coast of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates…. READ MORE HERE
A Wild Ride in Korea (Sunday/24 October)– But when I woke up in the morning, what I found was quite astounding: my doomsday vision had come true. Lo and behold, when I woke up in the morning there he was — Fernando Alonso was sitting eleven points clear atop the driver’s standings, as both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber failed to finish the race for Red Bull and left the window open for the Ferrari team to sneak back into the longshot discussion in the manufacturer’s standings. Remember that Ferrari did well in the early part of the season when the circuit was in this region of the globe; their home track in Monza only kick-started a progression back into territory where they’ve been successful. With just two races left, we may just have seen one of the biggest shifts in fortune in quite some time…. READ MORE HERE
Giro Becoming Better than Tour? (Tuesday/26 October)– We’re always looking at the Tour de France as the preeminent bicycle stage race in the world… but why? After seeing the kind of racing that was on offer in both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana this year, it’s hard to imagine that the Tour is really any better a test of an athlete’s ability. And having seen both the Giro and Tour routes revealed for 2011, I’m having a hard time discerning whether I really think the Tour is the harder race. Sure, the prestige is there… it was the first, after all. But is beating everyone else to the punch really a mark of greatness? Does mere longevity grant predominance? The way the Tour’s been selecting its courses the past few years, and the way things have shaped up in the other two grand tours with their course selection, the days where just the French roads capture worldwide imaginations have long passed…. READ MORE HERE
Was the Miracle of Berne meth-fueled? (Wednesday/27 October) — In this age where athletes have a wide array of chemical manipulation at their disposal, and drug testers have equipment so sensitive it can find the most minute traces of any chemical it knows, it is inevitable that an athlete gets popped trying to improve his or her performance with a banned substance. And I’ve often asked just why it is that we get so worked up about this fact. We label these people cheaters, we decry any record that may or may not have been set on a chemical, and we lament the loss of the innocence of our past. It is in that third part of the statement that we go overboard. Why? Because cheating is as intrinsic a part of sport as any other facet of the operation…. READ MORE HERE
ON THE DOCKET…
The docket in my own life goes hectic. How many hockey games and football games will I actually even get to watch this next week, much less all those other sports I love like soccer? Hell, that all depends on having some consistent internet in my household. (Here’s a hint, those people debating which way to go: NEVER CHOOSE QWEST!!!)But for those of you with televisions and/or computers and connections you can trust to get the job done a-surfin’, there’s plenty on the docket in the coming week. (To access live feeds online, go to this website for all the best links I’ve been able to find…)
The WTA is hosting its season championships in Doha, Qatar at the moment. The top eight (healthy) women in the world are battling it out in this rising metropolis for the spoils of being crowned the tour champ for 2010. As that goes on, the men battle onward toward the ATP championship later in November. (Can Roger Federer improve on his record-tying 64th career ATP victory before 2010 rolls over for its brief interlude before the new year yields Australian tennis?) Samantha Stosur proved in her win over Caroline Wozniacki on Wednesday that she’s going to be a force in the tournament given her form and her raw power…
Soccer is in its full bloom, both the European version and the MLS playoffs which are getting underway. (Oh, to see Portland fetch a Cup in the next few years… how sweet would that be, to witness in person? I could very well be doing it at PGE Park in the next decade.) Domestic battles saw league cup action throughout the week and league play this weekend. Ah, soccer… this certainly isn’t a pansy sport!
Speaking of something that isn’t a pansy sport and should resonate a little better with football traditionalists, the rugby powerhouses Australia and New Zealand will be playing for the Bledisloe Cup in Hong Kong on Saturday. Held semi-annually since 1932 and annually for my entire life, the Bledisloe is a staple of international rugby. If you can’t get excited for this matchup, you must be better suited for another sport.
And of course there’s plenty of hockey and football — all week long, it seems, after I realized I was catching Boise State’s win over Louisiana Tech on a Tuesday…