Wednesday, February 19, 2014

It's just the rest of your life

Miss V is taking a sports medicine class this year, mostly because it counts as a necessary physical education credit and she didn't relish the thought of taking another general P.E. class. (I can relate.) Although she's doing well in the class, she hasn't been too interested in learning about all the bones and muscles and other bodily systems that can be affected or injured by participation in sports; V is more of a hands-on girl who wants to see practical applications. She attends games with her sports med teacher, who doubles as the high school's athletic trainer, and sees firsthand what can happen to athletes who get injured during games. This experience gets her attention far more than textbook analysis ever could.

Right now the class is studying the far-reaching effects of concussions and other traumatic brain injuries sustained in high school, college and professional sports. It's been in the news a lot, though I haven't noticed because my interest in pro sports is usually close to zero. But we read a number of articles on the subject today and discussed what they meant, how often facts or statistics from one article contradicted those of another, and the wide differences of opinion on the subject, ranging from old-school coaches who think concussion is no big deal, to physicians who fear that repeated athletic brain injuries lead to permanent brain damage and early death.

Perhaps the most well-written and simultaneously the most pathetic article we read was this Sports Illustrated opinion piece by former NFL player Nate Jackson. To Jackson, the pain and confusion of head injuries, even the fear of permanent brain damage, were nothing compared to the glory that was once heaped on him for being very, very good at football. In fact, in some passages it's difficult to tell whether he's talking about a team sport or an addictive drug:
If my phone were to ring this very moment, and Mike Shanahan was on the other line telling me that they are short a tight end and asking if I’m in shape and if I want to take another shot at this, I would have a hard time turning him down. Even with the electrical shocks shooting through my brain and mounting scientific evidence. Even with the sadness, the confusion and the doubt. Even with an intimate knowledge of the hell that I was dumped in four years ago when I was cut for the last time, a hell that I have finally climbed out of.
Because I know that for those moments that I spend employed by an NFL team, I will be validated. My skills will be needed. There will be no time for the what-ifs. No time for doubt. No time for science. Only time for THIS, brothers. Crack! Smack! Whammo! Unleash the trained beast! Give me a task to complete, with THESE, my two hands! My body, my heart, and my mind. I am a warrior! But there is no more war for me.
Yes, professional-level football players are paid an incredible amount of money to do what they do. And yes, these days they have a pretty good idea of what they're getting into when they sign up for pro ball. But there's something incredibly sad about a man admitting that the work and preparation of his entire youth, the expenditure of all his might and strength, were tapped only for those few glorious years in his twenties when he could play professionally, and that the rest of his life -- even assuming that he manages to avoid the long-term debilitations of Parkinson's disease, ALS, CTE or a host of other permanent traumas -- is fated to be a long downhill slope. The idea that everything you worked for, everything you trained for, everything you're really good at doing and know how to do, is now no longer useful to anyone -- and that if indeed you tried to use those skills in everyday life, they would probably put you in jail for assault -- is unspeakably pathetic.

I appreciate even more now the comments Richard Sherman made at his old high school, Dominguez, when he talked to the kids in the football program there. "Who wants to make the NFL?" Practically everyone raised his hand. "Now, tell me how long the average NFL career lasts?" After a few kids made guesses, he interrupted: "Three-and-a-half years. So what are you going to prepare for: Three-and-a-half years? Or the rest of your life?"

Of course, nobody gets through the process of living completely unscathed. Life isn't for wimps. But it occurs to me that, whether it's contact sports or some other potentially dangerous activity chosen in youth, a lot of people are making decisions that can later lead to physical ruin, mental heartache, even a loss of will to live. Forget three and a half years; too many of us only prepare for the next three and a half minutes, not for the rest of our lives. We do it, I think, because deep in our brains we secretly believe we're exceptional, lucky, or just plain immortal. People do it whenever they play the lottery, even though statistically speaking they have a better chance of being struck by lightning or dying in a plane crash than they do of winning the jackpot. I did it when, in my twenties and thirties, I repeatedly chose to eat whatever I wanted and not exercise nearly enough, even though I guessed I had all the genetic markers to develop Type 2 diabetes. It takes practice, frequent mental exercise, and maybe a good old-fashioned death scare to learn the importance and the prudence of choosing wisely, of planning for the long haul.

It's no biggie... it just affects the rest of your life. However long that turns out to be.

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