Sunday, December 30, 2007

Longevity in Sports and the Toll

I reached my 43rd birthday this last August, 1 week into my 2007 football season. Not as a coach but as a player. Most of the guys I played against in the 1990's are gone. There is only one player in the league that even remembers the 1991 JPFF Spring Tournament who is still playing besides myself.

One might ask, how does one keep playing or better yet, why? and why do I mention myself and those who I played against or with. For starters, I have been blessed enough with the longevity and health with which I continue to play. As to the issues associated with such longevity, I only started thinking about this them when I was feeling bothered by the fact that I was out of the game I loved from 2001 to 2005. It was a game and a sport that I had given my heart and soul to (don't take this bit the wrong way. The man upstairs still has control over my soul). While we play because we love the game, the professionals do not. They are paid entertainers. Notice that I did not say highly paid entertainers, in spite of the fact that many are. Most players do not have the high multi-million dollar contracts. they play for the league minimums or less if they are on the practice squads.

And while there have been several NFL players have been in their forties when they retired, most have been in their twenties and thirties. Unfortunately the toll the older players paid has been great. Reggie white retired at age 42 and was dead at age 43. Lyle Alzado tried to come back at age 41 but was dead at age 42 from brain cancer. There have been others who died in their forties including the great Walter Payton at age 45. Kenny Easly of the Seattle Seahawks had to retire because of a sudden onset of a kidney ailment at the prime of his career. And it does not seem to get any better.

Is their a reason for this and the other debilitating injuries suffered by those who play the game of football or other hard physical sports? One might say that the constant banging would do it, but then how do you explain those who live out their lives to a ripe old age and die of natural causes? And the problems are not limited to Football but are certainly much more in the limelight due to the high profile of football in the U.S..

There could be several explanations for the problems including depression when the player retires, dementia caused by brain damage from the pounding, or even the possibility that the players were more debilitated by the issue of drugs in sport, particularly HGH and Steroids. Also if each hit is the equivalent to a 60 MPH car crash, well, it has been proven that high speed car crashes can take years off a person's life span.

But while we want to blame something, the sports which benefit greatly from the contributions of these players, give little to nothing to the research and care of those players issues. Finally in 2007, in an effort led by the Chicago Bear's great coach of the 1980's, Mike Ditka, there is some money flowing to the care of former players. But this is just a drop in the barrel when it is compared to the billions in profits that the teams and team owner have made from these players.

If more is not done to research why these players from all hard physical sports are having the issues and dying as young as many of them are, we will wind up with hundreds and thousands of these players in the future who will be no better off than the disabled veterans who live on the street. We are only remembering them in the past few years with the aid they need and we need to start taking a more serious approach towards this issue.