by Clark Groome
It’s almost a daily occurrence that some of the news on the sports pages deals with injuries. While this isn’t new, today’s reports are made in a climate that has changed significantly over the past decade.
The change has come as increasing evidence has been uncovered that sports injuries, especially those to the head, have more serious long-term consequences than heretofore thought.
Some of those consequences include increased suicide rates among former players, early-onset dementia, depression, drug abuse, significant personality change and early death.
With increasing knowledge about what causes these issues, all the major sports are doing what they can, they say, to eliminate intentional and illegal acts that cause brain trauma or any serious injury.
Any discussion of what can and should be done to cut down on these injuries must begin with the understanding that all team sports have inherent risks.
Players get injured because accidents happen or clean plays go wrong. With that understanding, let’s look at what’s being done and what might be done to help reduce the intentional hits that cause life-threatening or life-changing damage.
All sports require anyone suffering any head injury to be evaluated by independent medical experts before being allowed to return to play.
The NFL has increased its attention to head butting and other hits to the head and will now toss players who are judged to have intentionally tried to hurt another. While most of the attention is focused on hits to the runners and quarterback, increased attention still needs to be paid to what goes on on the line after the ball is snapped.
Major League Baseball has taken the unprecedented step of discussing how to eliminate body- and head-crunching collisions at home plate. How this will be done, and what the penalties will be if ignored, is being worked out, but it is a move that will make the game safer for both the runners and the catchers.
Because of its speed, because fighting is part of its culture and because there is a lot of controversy surrounding the issue of what is appropriate punishment for an intentional, illegal and dangerous hit, let’s spend a bit more time talking about the NHL, where over the past few seasons concussions have seemingly become more frequent.
If a player has been judged, either by the referee on the ice or by the league, to have committed an illegal and intentional act that causes potential or actual harm to another player he can be kicked out of the game and suspended for a period of time the league feels fits the crime. While he can appeal, generally these penalties and suspensions are upheld.
As positive as that process is, it still is far from a solution to the problem.
For those of you who love the drop-the-gloves fights that have become a tradition, some say a safety valve, in the sport, I’m not going to suggest that fighting be outlawed, although I think it should be. When a fight leads to an injury, however, that causes one of the participants to lose playing time, even if just for the rest of that game, then the same actions – game misconduct penalties, league review, suspensions – should be applied to the uninjured fighter. Fighting is, after all, illegal, which is why it carries with it five-minute major penalties for the combatants.
For other illegal acts that are judged intended to injure there are several ways that might help to get them out of the sport. While it is unlikely that the league or the players’ association would ever approve these, here are a few possibilities:
• If a player causes an injury that forces the injured player to miss games, the perp could be suspended until the other player comes back.
• Set up a multi-game suspension program that, like the drug program in Major League Baseball, increases with each offense. First offense: whatever the league and a designated panel of judges (maybe three former refs and three former players) determines; second offense: 25 games; third offense: 82 games; fourth offense: lifetime suspension.
Those two ideas only affect the player. The most likely way this behavior could be stopped, or at least reduced, would be if management were to be affected in a way that would cause it to put pressure on players to clean up their act. Some ideas about how to do that:
• Fine the team anytime a player is suspended, increasing the amount each time the same player is found guilty.
• Whenever a player is suspended, the team should lose not only that player but also a roster spot, meaning that when someone is out on suspension the team would dress only 17 players and two goalies rather than the regular 18 and two.
• If a team’s player is given a lifetime ban then his team, rather than losing a roster spot, would lose a draft pick.
Clearly some of these seem severe in the extreme. But that’s the point. They are extreme but far less so than the damage the thuggery does to people who are injured by intentional acts that have no place in hockey or any other sport.