January 2014

The best of sports, the worst of sports

By Gail Binkly

I remember the night of Dec. 27, 1997, very distinctly. I’d stayed late visiting my sister in Colorado Springs, and now I was making the seven-hour trip home to Cortez in the dark. I had a miserable cold, and to top things off, a Highway Patrol car had been following me most of the way from Saguache toward Del Norte, apparently in the hope that I’d stray across the center line or provide some other excuse for him to stop me. I was mortified by the prospect, not because I was drunk or possessed illegal substances, but because I didn’t want anyone to see the pile of soggy Kleenexes I’d been throwing at the foot of the passenger seat as my nose flowed copiously.

But what I remember most clearly about that night was my euphoria.

For the Broncos had just beaten the Jacksonville Jaguars to advance to the next round of the playoffs – a year after enduring a crushing defeat to the same team. There are few moments of bliss as pure and uncomplicated as those following a great sports victory.

Many of my friends are aghast that I love pro football. To some extent, so am I. But my sister and I grew up listening to our dad shouting, “Throw the bomb, Johnny!” as his beloved Baltimore Colts did battle on Sundays. Maybe it’s like drinking cow’s milk – if you start doing it when you’re young, it seems natural. At any rate, Rhonda and I have been Broncos fans most of our lives, agonizing as our orange-jerseyed heroes lost four Super Bowls, thrilling when they finally won in 1998 and 1999.

But in recent years our fondness for the game has felt increasingly impure, as evidence mounts of the long-term effects of the bone-jarring hits for which the NFL is famous. The suicide in 2012 of former San Diego linebacker Junior Seau was an eyeopener for fans, as was the news that an analysis of his brain found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a condition linked to repeated trauma. (So far, CTE can be diagnosed definitively only after a person is dead.)

Seau was far from the first to suffer from CTE, which is linked to depression, dementia, emotional instability, and physical deterioration. Over a recent two-year period, a half-dozen other former or current NFL players with some CTE symptoms killed themselves. One of those, former Bear Dave Duerson, shot himself in the chest and left a note asking that his brain be studied; the analysis found CTE. It was also found in the brain of Ray Easterling, a former Falcon who shot himself. And in that of former Bronco Shane Dronett, who killed himself in 2011. And in that of former Eagle Andre Waters, who killed himself in 2006 at the age of 44; the pathologist said his brain looked like that of a man in his 80s with Alzheimer’s.

And in December 2013, the family of former Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher announced that his body was being exhumed so he could be tested for CTE, a year after he shot and killed his girlfriend, then himself.

Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is studying the brains of 60 deceased football players and has released results for a third of them; all but one showed evidence of CTE. Autopsies of more than 50 ex-NFL players have found evidence of CTE, according to ESPN.

Former quarterback Brett Favre says he is already experiencing serious memory loss after his 20 years in the NFL. And Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett says a (controversial) new test purported to diagnose CTE in living people has found that he has it.

CTE isn’t the only hazard of playing in the NFL, of course. In his book, “Slow Getting up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile,” former Broncos receiver Nate Jackson describes the injuries he received during his career: multiple shoulder dislocations; a broken tibia, rib, and fingers; a torn medial collateral ligament in the knee, a torn groin muscle, a torn hamstring, bone chips in the elbow and ankle, concussions, labral tears in either hip, trauma to the lower spine, sciatic nerve damage, Achilles tendinitis, and plantar fasciitis in both feet.

All this raises the question: Is it fair to ask young men to undergo such injuries just to entertain us?

Sure, they do it of their own free will. But young males are not known for their judiciousness and restraint. Wave a lucrative contract and the prospect of fame in front of a 21-year-old, and he’s not likely to worry about the distant future.

So should we do away with football? Maybe, but it isn’t the only dangerous game. Boxers, wrestlers and hockey players (such as Toronto’s Wade Belak, whose suicide was linked to CTE) also suffer concussions and horrific injuries. Even baseball players are not immune. In December, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy announced that Major League outfielder Ryan Freel, who committed suicide at 36, had CTE after repeated collisions with outfield walls and such.

As a fan, I don’t want to see football go away. Despite its brutality, it is in many ways the best of sports – complex, beautiful, fast and thrilling. It meets my personal criteria for a great game: It’s played outdoors (for the most part). There are many different ways to score (as compared to, say, baseball or basketball): the touchdown, field goal, safety, PAT, two-point conversion. And the defense can score, adding an extra element of unpredictability and excitement.

But officials in pro, college and high school football need to reduce the risk of chronic injury and brain damage – or in a generation or two, there will be few athletes willing to play the sport.

After years of denying the problem, the NFL finally adopted some rules to help protect players, and came down hard on the New Orleans Saints for their secret bounty system that rewarded members of the defense for injuring opposing teams.

But it needs to do more, such as:

• Shorten the season. Cut some pre-season games and the meaningless Pro Bowl. Look at scaling the regulat season back as well.

• Demand stricter enforcement of helmet-to- helmet, unnecessary-roughness, late-hit and similar penalties. These rules do no good if officials don’t throw the flag when offenses occur. When Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin clocked Bengals punter Kevin Huber during a recent game, for instance, breaking the punter’s jaw and cracking a vertebra, it wasn’t even whistled as a penalty. Later, the NFL fined Garvin $25,000 for hitting a defenseless player (the fine ought to have been a lot higher).

• Adopt a mandatory- ejection policy similar to those in the NBA and NHL. Require that any player guilty of two violent offenses in a game be thrown out, or allow ejections for especially flagrant fouls.

• Start suspending players for vicious hits instead of just fining them. Does it make sense to suspend a player six games for a questionable drug test when someone who deliberately injures another player isn’t suspended at all?

There are fans that won’t like any of that, who will whine that the NFL is becoming a flag-football league, that it’s supposed to be physical and only sissies complain about hard hits. (There were plenty of online comments to that effect after Garvin’s hit on the punter.)

But while pro sports will never be perfectly safe, they shouldn’t require players to sacrifice their brains and their chances of a healthy old age.

Football is supposed to be a game, not a gladiatorial contest. Want to see blood and gore? Join the Army and get deployed to an overseas conflict.

Football has to change in order to survive – and, moreover, to be worthy of support. True fans will accept that fact.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press. In the distant past in Colorado Springs, she worked for three years as a sports writer.