12.21.2009

Our Modern Roman Colosseums


It is easy for us to tsk-tsk the ancient Romans for their carnal lust for "fight to the death" matches at the Colosseum. Some in modern times make a connection to boxing or ultimate fighting, and scold those who enjoy watching those sports. But I am starting to think long and hard about whether I am no longer comfortable supporting a professional sport that is far more currently popular and potentially just as damaging to its participants: football.

This is a subject I've blogged about twice before: "Football Lust" and "Are You Ready for Some (Life After) Football." You undoubtedly know about the Malcolm Gladwell article earlier this year about the barbaric nature of the NFL, and whether being a fan is all that different morally than supporting dogfighting. Locally, Eagles studs Brian Westbrook and DeSean Jackson have suffered concussions. But this recent Sports Illustrated article about a former NFL'er takes the case: "Former NFL Star Dave Pear is Sorry He Ever Played Football. Here is a money quote:

"Though he chalks up his physical ailments to snap after snap of punishment, he pinpoints the biggest problems back to 1979 and '80, his final two NFL seasons. While playing for Oakland, Pear suffered a herniated disc in his neck that never improved. Despite the unbearable agony, he says the Raiders urged him to keep playing. Be a man! Be tough! 'Those last two years in Oakland were very, very difficult times,' he says. 'I was in pain 24 hours per day, and my employers failed to acknowledge my injury. Sure, I won a Super Bowl ring. But was it worth giving up my health for a piece of jewelry? No way. Those diamonds have lost their luster.'"

Obviously, NFL players are handsomely compensated for taking on these risks. On a positive note, the men in the trenches, who open up holes for star running backs (or close those holes down) and who keep star quarterbacks from getting drilled (or do the drilling) may not have the fame but their salaries often equal or even exceed those of the name players. So my soul is not troubled from an economic standpoint: the NFL may want to reform the way it sets up player compensation structures so that medical benefits are a bigger portion to account for the after-effects of such a brutal sport, but otherwise these are contractual arrangements that players, teams, and the league enter into freely, and they are priced in a way to reflect the danger and briefness of the profession.

But the notion that the players I love watching on any given Sunday will, two decades later, rue their profession altogether, suffer through debilitating pain, and have their quality and quantity of life severely diminished leaves me troubled. For I am beginning to see an uncomfortable connection between my rooting and the practice of bloodthirsty ancient Romans. Reveling in a defensive player "blowing up" a ballcarrier with a huge hit is not much different than clamoring to the emperor for a thumbs-down on a gladiator facing the tip of a sword: the only difference is that our modern participant will simply die more slowly, but will still eventually die, and in a gruesome and painful manner.

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