May 5, 2012

A Sporting Chance

In my little memoir, SitRep Negative: A Year in Vietnam, I talk about the guy at my physical who was in perfect shape except for a bad knee from high school football. He was 4-F, while I was just what the Army wanted ... weak eyes, bad back and all. At the time, it struck me as somewhat ludicrous that this perfect physical specimen would be rejected in favor of an out-of-shape schlub like myself.

Now I look back and wonder if that young man was disappointed at not being able to serve, like my father was in World War II, when he was 4-F because of a hitherto unsuspected heart condition. That bothered my father for his entire life. Maybe that guy ahead of me in line was equally bothered by his rejection. Another thing I wonder about is how he is doing today. Does his leg bother him on rainy days? Has it progressed into arthritis? These aren't things you think about in your twenties, but to a man in his sixties such thoughts come easily.

What happens to athletes as they age has become a controversial issue, especially for professional football, where violent collisions are the order of the day. The recent death of Junior Seau, even though it may never be shown to be connected to head injuries, has reignited the simmering controversy over how much the game takes from, and in return, owes it players.

Years ago I watched a special about aging football players from the 50s and 60s who were now barely able to walk, men whose faces plainly showed the lingering affects of constant pain. That fear now haunts every player in the NFL as the evidence of long-term damage from concussions mounts.

My kids never played sports. But lots of parents do have kids in high school and college playing in hockey and football, two sports known for high-speed collisions. You have to wonder where that tipping point is that convinces parents that the risks to young bodies and minds are not worth the rewards of what can be very fleeting fame.

Most sports need players with only average ability to fill out the rosters so that the truly talented kids can play at their higher level. I have trouble seeing how the parents of those less talented kids kids—knowing that their playing days will begin and end in high school, knowing that their future lies elsewhere—are going to continue to be able to talk themselves into believing that high school football or hockey is worth the risk to their kid's future.

Without those average players, can high school football continue? Many sports analysts believe that football ten years from now will be significantly different from the way it is played today. I hope that a safe way is found to play football. But if I'm a parent looking at signing my kid up for the next season of high school football, this is a tough call to make. I would want to give my child a sporting chance at a good life, and the sport of football as currently played does not seem to be a good bet.

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