sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Damn concussions

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Sports are such an attractive spectator diversion for lots of reasons, and one certainly has to be their simplicity. You get winners and losers, mostly clear-cut. You can hide away from it all in the sports page. You can lose yourself, forget about your crummy job, for an afternoon and root for your team. You can put your frustrations behind and watch your kids play sports and dream — however pathological those dreams are for some — of straightforward glory on the field, in the arena.

I used to watch all the games. I heard the crowds. I created important meaning, life lessons, around the athletes. But we know how it’s all being spoiled. Greed. Money. The sports page has a regular jurisprudence section and is full of other bad behavior (see “Bad sports, good sports” for some great perspectives). Alas, the sports page is now like reading the rest of the newspaper.

But, for me, the illusion has also been broken because of this noise I now hear when I watch my favorite games, football tops among them. I can’t shake it, especially when watching or even thinking about contact youth sports.

Knock bang thump.

The sound I imagine I hear is the sound of brains banging against skulls, getting bruised and damaged, brain cells smashed and contorted, connections smothered. It’s a muffled sound, but it’s the sound of little minds not developing so they will one day backfire on the bodies that carry them, on the selves they define. It’s the sound of concussions.

We love our contact sports and those who play them. But we’re being faced with the reality that these sports are terrible for many of these people.

Now, I watch sports and want to see nothing but glory, but I keep hearing that sound. Knock bang thump. I see a collision at a kids’ game and want to recognize the bravery of the young athletes. Knock bang thump. I want to think “Courage! Heart!” when a kid gets up from getting struck in the head by a fast-moving ball. Knock bang thump.

It’s hard to shake that sound. So maybe the only way we can keep enjoying our games is to distance ourselves from them.

This author loves football. This author played tackle football with a bunch of beloved knuckleheads until he was 40 years old. When this author had boys, he couldn’t wait for them to get the pads on. But time has worn on, and it hasn’t happened yet.  He’s a little worried about their brains, so he has delayed football a little, one more year. Knock bang thump.

But they play soccer. It doesn’t take long before little games of rec soccer are replaced by heightened competition, and in soccer that means the ball is up in the air more. Kids are constantly heading it in games and practicing headers several times a week in practice. They also smash into each other. Knock bang thump.

This author, by the way, is a youth wrestling coach, part of a tight community of kids, parents, and friends. Wrestling is a contact sport, but he hasn’t seen many concussions in his 30 years of being around the sport. Or has he just not looked closely enough, even at his own history? This year, a young athlete in his in club did suffer a concussion. Weird. Knock bang thump.

It was all once so simple. Sure, people blew out knees, damaged shoulders, and that was forever too, but the idea of fundamental rewiring, of depression, of bullets to the chest so the body could end but the brain could be intact — as the evidence piles up, will we be able to keep collectively ignoring these realities of our games?

Could this author bid goodbye to football? He was amazed a year and half ago when an ESPN writer explored this idea. God, it seems impossible. It’s one of the few spectator things he still loves. Sunday afternoon, drawn into the often bittersweet narrative of an Eagles game, getting a little enigmatic emotional kick from those warriors, those gladiators in armor. But now a speedster runs back a kick and gets thumped. The crowd roars. The announcers froth. But he hears that sound. Knock bang thump.

Maybe we’ll get this solved in football. Pop Warner is already on it, changing practice rules to reduce contact. Maybe moves like this will be enough to preserve the risk that makes the game appealing but eliminate the potential for wide-spread carnage.

We’ve certainly done worse, our species has, for sport. We’ve watched some terrible things. But for the games we enjoy today on such a mass, collective level, will we only be able to remain spectators by drifting into a detached space where the damage is always to others, not to our people.

Knock bang thump.

Until your kids and their friends step on the field. Knock. Walk into the arena. Bang.Then you may have to think about it all. Thump.

Then it might even be difficult to enjoy a little Sunday escapism for a few hours.

Damn concussions.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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3 Responses to “Damn concussions”

  1. How odd that I just spent this weekend discussing this… Maybe it will I will bring back the glory of track & field, of swimming and of tennis to do away with the arena of football. Not that I haven’t loved football (and longed to play it “for real” as a kid) but I find myself appreciating more the true feats of individual prowess in track & field and even the amzing feats fo strength and fitness in veues like Cirque du Soleil. That might be just pure envy of flexibility though too.

  2. It was crazy, we were tought your head leads the way. And you have a helmet use it. Just crazy.

  3. This is why I have been encouraging my kids in music, language, culinary arts, etc. But they still get concussions!

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