Friday, September 14, 2012

Five top books about football (and its dark side)

Rick Telander, who played football for Northwestern University, has been sports columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times since 1995. His books include Heaven is a Playground which was named as one of the best sports books of all time by Sports Illustrated.

With Eve Gerber at The Browser, Telander tagged five top books about football (and its dark side), including:
“You’re Okay, It’s Just a Bruise”
by Rob Huizenga

A memoir from a football physician is your next selection. Tell us about the autobiography of Los Angeles Raiders internist Rob Huizenga.

In this book Dr Huizenga divulged the incredibly damaging things that team doctors did to get players back in the game. Not things that were good for the player’s health; things that were good for the team and the owners. In his view, the coaches, the owners and the doctors themselves were in cahoots. They did not care about the players’ wellbeing, they did not care about their mental health, they did not care about their physical health because they had to win. The job description of the team doctor was not to make the players better; they’re there to help the team win. So if somebody is crippled in the process of making a touchdown, they’ve won that game for you and if you have to cut them that’s fine. Huizenga was the first person from the medical profession to explain all that.

He talks about a neck specialist from Philadelphia named Dr Torg who cleared a player to play after other doctors urged the athlete to retire or get surgery. He talks about Dean Steinkuhler, a tremendous player for the Raiders, who had 13 knee surgeries and another guy, Mike Munchak, a great player too, who had nine surgeries on his right knee alone. This is while they’re playing, so any doctor could warn, “You guys are crippling yourselves.” Huizenga watched all this and felt guilty about it. The Hippocratic oath says first you do no harm. Well, team doctors were doing harm.

Dr Huizenga resigned in disgust.

You either endorse what you see or you have to leave it. He saw that the medical staff’s mission was to help the owner because that’s why they were hired. He said, “I’m not going to do it.” And so then he wrote this book about it and the thing is nobody cares. It’s like, nice read, but nothing will change.

In a series of recent suits, dozens of former NFL players are seeking damages for brain trauma they suffered on the field. Will the game change because of the new focus on brain injuries?

Well, it’s been forced to change but not because people care. The insurance aspect of it has made the NFL do something and made parents more aware. But the obviousness of this has always been there. You can’t hit anything, including people, with your head without sustaining damage.

Most kids just quit, they play football for a while and they may be tough but they will say there’s something wrong with this sport. Something inside of them will tell them that, “This isn’t right. I don’t mind getting my knee injured or my ankle, my shoulder, my hip, my hand, or my wrist. But my brain? This is my essence, this is who I am and that’s not something to mess with.” We haven’t really identified what a person is but there are people who played football and when they’re done they’re not the same any more. They might be willing to risk it at a young age. But even one concussion can have an impact. Doctors are saying no amount of padding for the head can stop a concussion because a brain is loose jelly inside of the skull. The skull may not break, but the brain still collides with its sides and that concussion causes damage. One time of being knocked out cold – the bleeding, the trauma, the bruising – it can hinder you for life.

So what we get to is: Is this game playable? Concussions happen all the time. Is that something that should be tolerated? Guys will say, “I’m a gladiator.” Well, being a gladiator was outlawed a couple of thousand years ago. Civilised societies do not have gladiators. We’ve outlawed a lot of things. We don’t duel with swords any more. We don’t allow people to go out in the street and shoot each other. We recognised if we allowed these things, we would lose something as a civilisation. That’s the point we’re approaching in football. Nobody wants to acknowledge the obvious because it’s a wonderful game. Ninety-five per cent of it is within civilised bounds, but that 5%? It is a wonderful game but, knowing what we know, maybe we shouldn’t play it any more.
Read about the other books Telander discussed at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue