Early in last year’s hockey season, I watched in horror as Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic bulldozed Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller as he skated out of the goal-area to pass the puck. Miller stayed in the game, but was later diagnosed with a concussion, keeping him out for weeks. During the off-season, the Sabres decided to toughen up their team so that an incident like the Lucic hit would never happen again, signing forward John Scott, a 6’8’’ player known only for his prowess in fighting.
As a Sabres fan, I looked to this year’s Bruins-Sabres matchup with excitement. I wanted revenge for the hit. I watched with glee as Scott took on one of the Bruins’ fighters, Shawn Thornton. Scott had quite the size advantage – about seven inches taller, and fifty pounds heavier – and dispatched Thornton with ease. I happily watched as Scott landed punch after punch. Thornton fell to the ground, losing an edge on his skate. He never returned to the game after woozily entering the locker room. It was revealed afterwards that he had suffered a concussion from the fight. But I was, before that news, happy about the fight. I loved it.
Here’s the rub. I love sports, but hate how they’re played, how some leagues try to deny the danger of their sport. It’s a medical fact that studies have proven over and over again: concussions suffered by athletes have long-term, debilitating effects. The two sports I happen to like the most, football and hockey, are also two of the most physically violent. For years, these games have been built on violence – hitting is key to each game. And for years, people ignored the toll that these hits took on the athletes, and the fact that after retirement, many players struggle with physical limitations and, sometimes, mental ailments. There are former football players who now can’t even play with their kids because their bodies are so ravaged by their time playing professionally. Even scarier is the rash of depression and suicide among former hockey and football players after their retirement. Now we know a lot more about the dangers of playing these sports. And I find the leagues’ – the National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Football League (NFL) – behavior morally repugnant. And yet I continue to watch.
* * *
The NHL and NFL have both taken stances on the issue of player safety analogous to that of cigarette companies toward lung cancer. Both have somewhat acknowledged the problem and are working on their own ‘research’ to best determine their courses of action. Both have touted their commitment to “player safety,” which, while well-intentioned, falls far short of what is actually needed. The punishment is inconsistent – hits on star players are almost always punished, while hits on less important players are basically hung out to dry. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told ESPN radio that “any sport has a risk of injury,” while denying that the sport caused long-term damage to the players’ health – he couldn’t say for sure since there was more research to be done.
This was mere weeks after, to point out one example, New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was brutally hit struck a helmet to helmet hit, his body crumpling to the ground, his arms going stiff and remaining outstretched in what is commonly known as the ‘fencing response’ – a clear indicator of a serious head injury. Since Ridley ducked his head before taking the hit, no punishment was given out to the defensive player. The ball came loose on the hit, and a Ravens player fell on it as Ridley lay motionless.
I remember watching that exact play, and thinking to myself: “Wow. That’s horrible.” And then, I regret to say, I thought: “He fumbled. This changes the game.” It’s not that I didn’t care, but the action in the game had nearly as much importance to me as someone’s health and safety. It’s just that how I grew up – watching sports since as early as I can remember, literally learning to read with the Chicago Tribune’s sports section – has made me care this much about sports. I see a dangerous hit, am momentarily concerned, and then it’s back to the game. Maybe I’m distracting myself from the horrors of the game, or maybe the games mean more to me, on a deeper level.
Something about the big hits and the fights, despite knowing that they’re dangerous, viscerally excites me. I can sit back and say that a hit by a player on my favorite team was dirty, but, for at least a split second, it excites me. This is the primacy of my fanhood – my love for some imaginary entity (my team) – supersedes my moral qualms. The person I become when I watch sports is not a person I like; I am an angry, swearing, yelling tornado when losing, or a dumbly complacent, glazed-over grinner when winning. Either way, the players (usually on the other team) come second to my own personal pleasure.
Am I complicit in the moral repugnancy of the NFL and NHL? For all the times I point out that that their “player safety” policies are misguided and meant more for the benefit of public relations than as actual, effective policy, I still watch all the games I can, I still buy the merchandise, I still openly support the teams. In essence, I am telling the leagues, on a purely economic level, that I support what they are doing, even when, morally, I don’t.
Other people attempt to reconcile this by saying that the players know exactly what they’re getting into, while in fact, in the case of many athletes, the lure of money and fame make these risks seem palatable. But that doesn’t mean these leagues should continue to blithely regard their players as expendable products that break down and replace themselves over time. The players need care. The fact that they’re not getting it from their leagues, though, has not stopped me from watching. It’s easy to blame the league, but, in the end, I still haven’t found the moral resolve to stop caring.
* * *
I remember, in 2007, watching my beloved Buffalo Bills home opener. On a kickoff, tight end Kevin Everett attempted a hit on the kick returner and fell to the ground. He didn’t move again; his neck and spine were seriously injured. This was in 2007, before the current wave of concern of player safety, but, even from my own 14-year-old perspective, I could see it was bad. He was taken off the field in an ambulance and rushed to intensive care, where a miraculous surgery saved his life. The game felt odd to me after that, but I still watched. Everett’s status was more important than the game, as it should be, and should always be. It took a player’s near death to stop me from processing a game normally, and, even then, my father and I couldn’t turn off the game.
Most players, when concussed, eventually manage to stand up and get themselves off the field or rink. But seeing them still walking, still somehow functioning, has been enough for me for too long. My constant fandom scares me. How bad does it have to get for me to stop? Sports have a power over me I can’t really explain, one with ecstatic highs and, upon reflection, dark lows.