Like the old movie and television serials we have gone through our first ‘cliffhanger' with the CBA, and who knows how many additional moments are to follow. I trust that most who are reading this are aware of the surface issues that will be debated and compromised upon during the days and, perhaps, weeks ahead. But there are huge, overarching issues that will have to be resolved if the sport is to retain its lofty perch as King of sports entertainment in the U.S., and maybe whether it survives as a sport at all. There has been some discussion about these issues recently, but frankly they are not center stage, nor do they have to be in order to resolve the present labor dispute. However, wiser heads will realize that one or two events could drive these issues to the point where they are beyond the control or influence of anyone. There is an opportunity for a great deal of leverage that can be imposed by people who have a bit of foresight. There is much more at stake here than just the possibility of a lost season.
March 24, 1962 was a watershed day in sports history. That evening on prime time television Emile Griffith defeated Benny "The Kid" Paret for the Welterweight Championship of the world. There was just one problem; in the process Griffith literally beat Paret to death. It would take Paret ten days to succumb to the injuries that he received, but my reaction to watching that fight (just call me Methuselah) was that I had just watched one man kill another on live television. A couple of quick points; first, it wasn't the first or last time that someone would die as a result of what happened in a boxing ring. Second, boxing enjoyed some great times after this tragedy, and the sport survives to this day. But its days as a broad based public entertainment have come and gone. (How many of you can name the heavyweight champion (s)?) The problem is that the dark underbelly of the sport; the barbaric violence that would ultimately lead to disaster of some kind (after all, the purpose of boxing is to inflict concussions) would sooner or later seep out in a manner that was incompatible with the concept of casual family entertainment. The present condition of Muhammed Ali is more representative of the actual long term consequences of the sport, and if you have any memory of what he was, not a very pretty representation. So there were no more live broadcasts of boxing on American networks for the remainder of the 60s.
On August 12, 1978 the NFL dodged a bullet so to speak. In a preseason game Darryl Stingley, a star wide receiver for the New England Patriots was involved in a collision with the Oakland Raiders All Pro safety Jack Tatum. Stingley broke two vertebrae in his back and was rendered a quadriplegic for the remainder of his life (Stingley passed away in 2007). Relatively few fans saw the incident live, and the response by the league was probably as close to pitch perfect as the circumstances would allow. Nonetheless, we got a glimpse of the dark underside of the NFL. This wasn't Wrestling. There was no cartoon violence here. That glimpse was mercifully brief. Generally speaking, we'd much rather believe that our heroes had ridden off to the land of Happily Ever After. Except that some of news that trickled down from Paradise was a tad bit disturbing. Terry Long. Steve Courson. Mike Webster. (and those were just the Steelers) The bad news that was coming in came in three separate categories: physical, involving the deterioration of the body because of the extraordinary stresses caused by the game, the consequences of altering the body through substance abuse or carrying excessive amounts of weight. Mental, involving the particular problems of head injuries, especially as new scientific findings pour in (for example, the devastating evidence supporting the onset of Lou Gehrig Disease among former players). Financial. Here is the glib excuse that we as fans resort to when we don't want to worry our pretty little heads about something (such as the quality of our entertainment). "They get paid enough." And "They knew what they were getting into." I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that both of these statements are too flawed to be supportable any longer. HBO's Real Sports recently put out a report on the financial woes of former players that is just as impactful as its reports on head injuries.
Dave Duerson committed suicide this week. Two years ago all but a handful of folk would view this as an isolated tragedy, in no way connected to his choice of profession and the accompanying demands, pitfalls and issues that come with the territory. Shortly, even the most casual fan will have to be in full-fledged denial to not know the tell-tale signs of the pathology that now plagues the sport.
Nearly a year ago I sat down with former Steeler Randy Grossman for an interview that would appear in the MSP 2010 Steelers Annual. Because of space restraints some intriguing aspects of our conversation never made it to the article. We talked about the fact that there aren't many boxing gyms in affluent neighborhoods. The reason (if not obvious already) is that boxing is a sport that is embraced in desperation. If any reasonable alternative is available to trying to beat another human being unconscious while they try to do the same to you then that will be the path chosen. So, how will professional level football be viewed a few short years from now? Put another way, what will constitute enough pay to justify an increase in the risk of dementia, suicide or functioning in a vegetative state (ALS)? And if the risk can be clearly established what negotiator who is sane will not insist upon guaranteed contracts in exchange for the risks involved in providing entertainment?
I was a great fan of boxing and will still, if given the opportunity, watch old tapes of the great matches extending up to the 1980s. But it has been well over a decade since I have watched boxing (and, no, no ultimate fighting either). I really love football, but I also have a conscience. The game has to be fixed.