I wrote my first post for I.N.K. on February 8, 2008, just five days after the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The subject was “Rooting—and Writing—for the Underdog,” and it explored my soft spot for underdogs, especially in sports and women’s history. Four years later, the same two teams are about to meet again in the world’s most talked about football game (American football, that is), and I still gravitate to sports as a terrific framework through which to explore history. But in light of recent news and events, my enthusiasm is somewhat tempered.
Despite being a lifelong football fan, I can no longer watch a professional or college football contest without being aware of the devastating effects that the violence of the game has on the human body, particularly the brain. After years of ignoring and then denying these effects, the National Football League has finally accepted the overwhelming medical evidence, much of it gathered through research on the brains of deceased players. The league is even planning to run a commercial addressing player safety during this year’s Super Bowl. But owning up to the problem is just the beginning. The jury is still out on whether changes to the rules and equipment can do enough to protect players from the long-term effects of repeatedly jostling their brains during tackles and collisions.
Another recent devastating development in the sports world was the January 19 death of Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke from injuries during a training run on a half-pipe in Utah. Burke, one of the premier athletes in her sport, flipped over after an uneventful run and struck her head, tearing an artery that caused a hemorrhage in her brain. The hemorrhage led to cardiac arrest, depriving her brain of oxygen and causing irreversible damage.
After Burke’s death at age 29, New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire remembered meeting her at an ESPN event and asking why she chose freestyle skiing, with its gravity-defying spins, twists, and flips. “Because it’s fun,” she told him. In the wake of the tragedy, however, some critics wondered if extreme sports such as freestyle skiing have gotten too extreme. They pointed out that the height of the walls of the half-pipe, the icy trench used in some snowboarding and freestyle skiing events, has increased from 16 to 22 feet, adding excitement, but also risk. Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, told ABC News that in light of Burke’s death, officials “might” examine ways to make the sport safer. I’d change that word to “should.”
I’ve always admired the confidence and self-esteem I see in the female athletes I meet. There’s nothing like excelling at a physical endeavor and working with teammates toward a shared goal to make you feel good about yourself. And I’m still convinced that the positive impact of playing sports far outweighs the negative. Just the other day, Jessica Mendoza, a U.S. Olympic gold medalist in softball and past president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, wrote an article for espnW.com examining the “Top Five Reasons To Play Sports.” Her reasons: To stand out; to be confident; to look good; to be leaders; and because we love it.
I continue to believe that the way people engage in sports is an important reflection of the times in which they live. Sometimes it’s even a factor for change (e.g., women finding liberation through the bicycle in the 1890s). In today’s perilous economic times, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that some sports promise the biggest prizes to those who go for broke with big hits or big air. But the governing bodies of organized sports must act responsibly and work with athletes to safeguard their wellbeing. TV sportscasters must stop glorifying violent tackles and praising players who return to the field too quickly after getting “their bell rung.” Fans must stop expecting the athletes they root for to be superhuman. They’re not, although the best of them sometimes achieve superhuman feats, often with very human consequences.
And with that, I offer a heartfelt but restrained, “Go Giants!”