Thursday, January 29, 2009

Heading For More Trouble


There is a village in western Siberia that is so remote and forlorn that when German authorities in the state of Hesse were trying to decide early last year what to do with a 16-year old boy who had been unruly and violent in school and home, they figured nine months in Sedelnikovo would turn him around. While there, the young reprobate had to dig his own latrine, chop wood and collect his own water from a nearby well, all the while trying to keep from freezing off body parts in temperatures that reach 40 below. Early reports of his progress were encouraging, which meant when he was returned to civilized life in Deutschland, he no longer disrupted his classes or thought it wise to physically attack his mother.

The youth’s exile could have been worse. The authorities could have sent him to Dudinka, the grim Siberian village above the Arctic Circle whose inhabitants’ bleak lives consist of drinking and hunting the few reindeer that remain. Their lot is so hopeless that the thought of even modest prosperity is impossible for them.

And yet, to listen to members of the Arizona Cardinals, these miserable creatures, along with the German boy’s friends in Sedelnikovo will be absolutely stunned should the underdog defeat Pittsburgh Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII. The Cards, whose decades of futility have been well chronicled during the past few weeks, have promised to “Shock the world!” by beating the Stillers. Here’s a little news for the Cards: When you’re chewing on the last scrap of reindeer jerky, and you’re nursing the 300th cheap vodka hangover in as many days, you don’t care a bit about whether a seven-point dog wins a football game 8,000 miles away.

Such is the hyperbole that accompanies the Supe, which becomes a bloated festival of self-importance no matter how unappealing the game may be. Last year, the manic build-up was almost warranted, since the Patriots hadn’t lost and were trying to spoil the annual revelries of the bitter ’72 Dolphins. New England was attempting to make real, live sporting history, rather than the contrived version offered up daily by breathless propaganda partners. Were the denizens of Dudinka to hear the Pats’ story, they may have put down their bottles long enough to shake their heads at the Giants’ victory, provided news of any sort makes its way to that wasteland.

With just a few precious days of hype remaining before the game, the analysis gets more detailed, and the search for stories with even a modicum of interest is carried on with a fervor reserved for murder investigations. Against that shrill backdrop – not to mention the NFL’s own cranked-up soundtrack – it is hard to hear the voices of those trying to warn us that the combatants in Sunday’s game are headed for a future destination where pain persists, and depression, dementia and disorders are real possibilities.

Earlier this week, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine released the findings of its research on the brains of five former NFL players. Three of them had died after long bouts of depression and a fourth, Andre Waters, had committed suicide. In each case, studies revealed extensive brain damage, often consistent with what is seen in Alzheimer’s patients much older.

“I knew what traumatic brain disease looked like in the very end stages, in the most severe cases,” said Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, MA. “To see the kind of changes we’re seeing in 45-year olds is basically unheard of.”

Talk about shocking the world.

The sad thing is that as Dr. McKee and her associates continue their investigations – about 100 athletes have consented to have their brains examined after they die – they should find that this is not some cruel anomaly, but rather the norm for NFL veterans who spent multiple years slamming their heads into heavily armored, swiftly moving obstacles. At first, a concussion was thought to be a singular event, causing disorientation, occasional unconsciousness and a stunned feeling. After a recovery period, the victim was able to resume normal activity. Thanks to the folks at CSTE, we’re are learning that concussions can produce long-term trauma, personality-altering conditions and eventually a kind of deep depression that leaves people desperate. That explains Waters’ suicide and former Steeler great Mike Webster’s destitute existence in his final years.

Those are the stories we know. Former New England linebacker Ted Johnson, who estimates he suffered more than 100 concussions, is certain that many others are compromising their lives now because of effects of their own brain injuries. He speaks of a two-year period when getting out of bed was painful. “Those were bad days,” he says, clearly understating his predicament.

Meanwhile, the NFL rolls on with its annual celebration of football. And, heaven help us, we love it. The league has even vowed its own study of concussion effects, in the hopes that it will contradict what’s coming out of the CSTE and, admittedly, its small sample group. Even if the evidence it compiles indicates serious long-term damage for those who suffer multiple concussions, it’s unlikely the NFL will do anything drastic to protect its players. It will continue to encourage helmet manufacturers to produce safer models and order teams to be more careful with those who sustain the injuries. But in a league that sells violence, the idea that anything substantial will be enacted to limit the collisions – more than one player refers to games as a series of “car crashes” – is laughable.

One need only look at the last minutes of the AFC title game, when Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark obliterated Baltimore back Willis McGahee, after McGahee caught a pass over the middle from Joe Flacco. The hit was clean but so ferocious that it was impossible to see it without cringing, even after multiple viewings. While the game announcers spoke in hushed tones, and folks in the truck went quickly to commercial, there was still a charged feeling that permeated the moment, since this kind of savagery is readily available to the bloodthirsty NFL audience – and it’s legal! The kill shot mentality of the game and how it’s sold to hungry fans fuels the NFL engine and is certain to color any future discussions about enacting rules that might protect players more.

If it really cared, the NFL might ban helmet-first tackles, to the point that any player who makes one will be ejected from the game. The same would go for anyone who delivered a blow to an opponent’s head. Would it remove some of the animal attraction from the game? Absolutely. But it might also preserve the health and welfare of players long after they quit the game.

And it might even get those folks in Sedelnikovo and Dudinka to take notice.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: The New York Times reports that federal prosecutors have evidence that urine samples from BALCO Bonds contained anabolic steroids, something that should be quite useful in their perjury case against the laboratory creation. What a shocker! The feds are also squeezing the mother-in-law of former Bonds trainer Greg Anderson over an old tax issue, in hopes of getting the heretofore-silent source to spill the beans. Sure, it smacks of old-style intimidation tactics, but baseball’s integrity is at stake. Some eggs must be broken…It has been said by plenty of people, but it bears repeating: There are no circumstances whatsoever under which a team can justify a 100-0 victory in a high school (or lower level) basketball game. None. The coach of the offending team should have been fired before the final horn finished sounding. The parents who screamed for more points should be reported to social services. And any school administrator in attendance who didn’t move to stop the carnage should be suspended…Fighting. Hockey. They go together. The players want it. The fans want it. The advertisers want it. And if it were outlawed, every top star in the league would be fair game for poachers who have no fear of retribution. And, short of the folks in the rink, who’s watching anyway? There are plenty of other things to worry about, like the economy, bonus-hungry thieves in the investment business and whether Jordin Sparks busts the over/under on the national anthem Sunday. (She doesn’t.)…You have to love Knicks guard Stephon Marbury. He says New York is being vindictive by not buying him out and letting him join the Celtics. Well, duh! Of course the Knicks are making this personal. After paying that mutt $21 mil a year to watch him pile up individual statistics, they’re not going to make it easy for him to earn a ring. Here’s hoping they buy Steph out on March 2, which would make him ineligible to be on a post-season roster.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? On the evening after the death of Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike, it would have been entirely appropriate if the headlines placed atop the game stories about Villanova’s 67-57 win over Pittsburgh read, “Philly Fans Bid Spectrum Adieu.” That would have been a perfect homage to Updike’s famous New Yorker article, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” about Ted Williams’ final game with the Red Sox. There wasn’t much sentimentality in the stuffy old building Wednesday night, especially among those who remember the bile generated by the days when Daddy Mass forced a truncated Big Five on the city, and games were played in South Philly, not the Palestra. And fans couldn’t have enjoyed squeezing through the Spectrum’s narrow corridors. But as the 32-year old building closes (good thing people don’t become obsolete at that age), a final visit should be on every Philadelphia sports fan’s itinerary. You may not have been there for the Flyers’ Stanley Cup clincher in ’74, the Sixers’ two Finals wins in ’83 or Christian Laettner’s remarkable turnaround game-winner in the 1992 Eastern Regional final, but we all have great Spectrum memories, whether it’s a classic sports moment or the image of women storming the men’s rooms during concerts to avoid Soviet-style lines at the ladies’ facilities during concerts. The Spectrum doesn’t measure up to the current model of a pleasure palace, but it was really something in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. If you get a chance to spend a few last hours there, do so. And try not to remember Magic’s 42 points in 1980, the Celtics’ comeback in Game 6 of the ’81 Eastern finals, the ’76 Stanley Cup finals, the…

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AND ANOTHER THING: The NFL may be trying to make us forget about the condition of its former players and their concussion-addled brains, and at about 6:20 EST Sunday night, it will have achieved the goal. Although El Hombre’s post-season record hasn’t been stellar (5-5), it’s get-back time, and that means putting it all on the Stillers. Arizona has been great throughout the playoffs, showing defensive moxie few thought it had and exploding continually on offense. But Pittsburgh will get good pressure on Kurt Warner with its front four, allowing safety help over the top on Larry Fitzgerald, and the Stillers’ run game will soften up the ‘Zona D. Pittsburgh becomes the first-ever six-time Super champion with a 27-14 win.


1 comment:

Dr. David Weiman said...

Awesome, as always, Michael. I saw a TV special not too long ago that caught up with former NFL players to show the real effects of participating in such a brutal sport.

It wasn't pretty.

The sight of guys in their late 40s and early 50s having trouble simply standing or walking was sad.

Keep up the awesome work!