Athletes' safety can start in the stands
By JOHN McCALLUM
The contrast was so startling I had to chuckle.
Standing along the sidelines at any sporting event you hear a lot of things. Last Friday night at the Cheney football game with Omak, as I watched a Pioneers kickoff return a voice came ringing out of the stands: “Kill him! Kill him!”
It's not the first time, and it won't be the last, but what cracked me up was the voice was female. I couldn't tell if it was a student or some mom gone wild-eyed nuts, but the contrast was funny.
It's not something unusual for football. It's a violent sport that gets our primal fight or flight juices flowing – mainly fight.
In one of the greatest stand up routines of all time the late, great comedian George Carlin said when comparing football with baseball that: “In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there's kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there's not too much unpleasantness. In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least 27 times you're capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.”
I'm not here to chastise anyone because I've been, and probably will be, guilty of such public outcry. Guaranteed, once Eastern Washington University football opens at home, I'll be in full throat with suggestions to the defense on what to do with a Grizzly wide receiver on a crossing route over the middle.
Sports overall are fraught with personal peril. Based on 2006 data compiled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (I'm going to check for their cameras at games) basketball topped all sports as to the number of injuries – 529,837. Most of these were sprained ankles, broken legs and eye and forehead injuries.
Next comes bicycling at 490,434 and not far behind, football with 460,210 injuries. Baseball and softball checked in fifth, 274,867, with soccer seventh, 186,544, and swimming eighth, 164,607. Also on the list were ATVs, mopeds and minibikes; exercise and exercise equipment, skiing and snowboarding along with lacrosse, rugby and other ball sports.
It can be a violent world this world of sports. But football injuries usually get the largest press and that's not surprising given the nature of the game.
While other contact sports – soccer, hockey, basketball – have their share of violent injuries, football tops all because one of the ideas behind the game is to physically stop your opponent from scoring by using your body essentially as a weapon. That might be harsh, but you get the point.
It should be noted that coaches stress proper tackling techniques to prevent injury. A 2009 study by the University of North Carolina stated that “Between 1977 and 2009, 41 percent of catastrophic injuries to 126 players below the professional level happened while tackling and 20 percent of those – 62 players – while tackling with the head down” which is bad form and not safe.
These catastrophic injuries have led to health problems in later life, something that has been known but never admitted until recently. Chief among these are concussions, which according to a 12-year study cited in an October 2010 article in “Health Day News” increased in severity among NFL players between 2002-2007 as compared to 1996-2001.
Part of the increase was also a willingness from players to report concussions and medical and training staff taking a more conservative approach to allowing players to return to action. This is also taking place at the collegiate and high school levels, with more information leading to better ability to diagnose and treat the injury.
It's still serious, and we will continue to hear stories of players hospitalized or whose careers have ended because of the number and severity of concussions as well as other injuries. Leagues and sports associations across the country have taken steps to do what they can to prevent injury, changing rules and playing conditions to protect the players, who as training techniques advance continue to get bigger, stronger and faster.
As fans I'm not sure there's much we can do about this. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of a game and we love the feeling we get when witnessing a big hit.
Maybe if we remember that such hits come with a price that can be terrible, it might temper our enthusiasm to shout encouragement. And we should support the efforts of league officials who in making up new rules to protect players, are also trying to preserve the continued existence of the game we love.
John McCallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.