The win-at-all-costs culture has existed in professional sports for decades. Winning is ingrained in the minds of professional athletes. They are trained to win. They want to win. They have to win. But, sometimes winning comes at a cost. Sometimes professional athletes ultimately pay the biggest price — their own lives.
The debate over concussions in the NFL continues to rage as there is great concern for athletes who repeatedly suffer head trauma. The blunt reality is that athletes who are the epitome of strength and athleticism today could be faced with brain damage in the future.
The frightening dangers associated with head traumas became a reality on Sept. 14 when Owen Thomas, a linesman on the University of Pennsylvania football team, committed suicide, at 21.
The autopsy of Thomas’s brain revealed that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a debilitating disease often found in aging or retired athletes. The affects of CTE include
poor decision-making, impaired memory, erratic behavior, use of drugs and alcohol, depression and suicide. The syndrome is a result of repeated blows to the head and concussions, typically found amongst boxers and football players.
Thomas was believed to be the first-known active college player to have the disease and it shocked the world of sports because the disease is typically attributed with much older athletes. It is not just the professional ranks that are being affected by head trauma; it is now younger athletes who are paying the price.
Football is a testosterone fueled American pastime that unites and divides in equal measure. Fans expect their players to push their bodies to the limits and nothing less. We all love the crunching tackles that we see on a Sunday afternoon. We are all aware of the dangers that are associated with football, but are we all in denial?
Athletes carry the burden of an entire city, state or country. Losing is not an option for most organizations and athletes are fully aware of this. But in sports such as football and boxing, athletes are putting much more than their bodies on the line. Their lives are at stake. Is the sweet smell of success worth losing your life for?
For some, sports are the center of the universe, but is it really a matter of life and death? Nobody wants to hear about the damaging long term effects head injuries can cause. Nobody wants to hear that head injuries caused in football can lead to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Nobody wants to hear any of this because of a fear of change.
Football is a gladiatorial spectacle. Fans expect players to get up, dust themselves down and get on with the game — no matter the injury. This is the culture that has existed for decades.
The players are aware of the dangers that come with head traumas, but they find themselves playing in a bubble. As soon as a professional athlete runs out on to the field, real life ceases to exist — all that matters is the next play or the next tackle. Inside that bubble athletes are indestructible. Inside that bubble athletes have a duty to their teammates. Inside that bubble all that matters is winning. But, what happens outside the bubble?
The danger for the NFL is that research on this topic will continue to gather momentum over the next twenty years. The horrifying results will continue to cause shock.
No matter what NFL commissioner Roger Goodall does to prevent such incidents, he is ultimately powerless. There will be more cases like Owen Thomas and the cases are going to occur in younger athletes. More and more football players will suffer from injuries related to head trauma. More and more articles will be published on the subject. More and more parents will prevent their children from playing organized football.
If this is the case where will this leave the NFL in 20 years?