Brutality in Sports: When does it stop?

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite times of year began. This is the time where as a Chicagoan we bubble over with glee knowing that we have the opportunity to see all of our favorite teams in action. Whether it’s the beginning of baseball season, hockey/basketball playoff games, the football draft, and finally the beginning of every woman’s sports season; there is something for everyone who cares about sports.

In these moments, we forget about the sacrifices these players make each day and what the future will often hold for them. Did you know the average male athlete dies by age 67 and for NFL players that age is 58? This stands in contrast to the average life expectancy of people worldwide which is 76. This difference in mortality rates is often attributed to the overall brutality in sports. What disturbs me most about this situation is that most sports leagues do not seem to know or want to do anything about this ongoing issue.

Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion about the Saints bounty case. The coaches, players, and management of the Saints team allegedly conspired to encourage their players to injure top players for monetary rewards (which were as little as $500.) There was a mixture of opinions from those associated with the NFL because this type of activity has happened throughout the league for years. There were a couple of common thoughts about the bounty case and also the penalties levied by the league. Many players and individuals who cover the league thought that the case was not unique and that this has occurred throughout the league from every team. Another opinion was that the league would not be able, through both suspensions and monetary penalties, to prohibit the behavior and that players and fans were not really interested in stopping these types of activities. However, the calls for encouragement or ignoring the issue all together did not take into account that there are over 1000 former NFL players and their families who are currently suing the NFL. The lawsuit alleges that the NFL allowed players to play with formidable injuries like concussions resulting in brain damage. In recent years, there has been a rash of suicides and overall life threatening behavior in NFL and NHL players who were suspected to have suffered some sort of brain injury at some point in their career. Based on this information, it is mind boggling that the NFL or any sport has not begun to put into effect stiff penalties to avoid any type of hit that could result in a concussion or career ending injury.

It should be noted though that the various leagues are not the only ones ignoring the issue. Recently, one Lions player, Dominic Raiola stated, “It’s common knowledge that people are going to suffer. Memory loss is going to come. You’re hitting every time you step on the field. I’m ready for it.” Based on statements like this, I honestly believe that the players themselves should not be responsible for regulating the violence in their various sports. It is ultimately up to the leagues to legislate “good” behavior. Another example of the violence in sports is the recent elbow thrown by Metta World Peace to James Harden that left Harden with a concussion. Seeing that elbow live made anyone who was watching the game grimace and immediately wonder whether a basketball game was taking place or whether this game was really a boxing match. Throughout the game, the announcer talked about the fact that there was some “chippiness” going on on the court, which seemed to make it ok that players were rough housing a bit and we as the audience should enjoy the aggressive play.

This made me wonder if the reason for the lack of league enforcement was a direct result of the possible ratings hikes violent play receives. Some reports show that more people watch a game when they hear that there are two “tough” teams playing. However, it does not seem logical to encourage a level of brutality that can increase ratings one day but that can also result in a player being injured and missing games that also include the playoffs. One only needs to look at the Bears and the fact that they lost 3 great players in Cutler, Forte, and Knox and had no hope of making a meaningful playoff run, resulting in lackluster ratings for those particular playoff games.

Speaking of the playoffs, yet another example of brutality occurred on April 18, when Raffi Torres leveled Marian Hossa in the Blackhawks playoff game. I was at that game and watching Torres speed over and leave his feet to hit Hossa was more like a playground fight than the hockey game I was there to watch. Moreover, it resulted in the Blackhawks losing one of their key players and some would argue losing the series as a whole. While Torres was suspended for 25 games effectively ending his season, it does not seem to be enough. One has to wonder if this bruiser mentality is just too deeply engrained in the spirit of professional athletes.

After all, the brutality is not just reserved for the professionals and can be seen in NCAA men’s and women’s sports. Xavier and Cincinnati engaged in an all-out brawl last year where players after the game talked about how they were protecting their house and other sentiments that seemed to welcome being suspended for being juvenile. And 8 of the players were eventually suspended because of their actions. Another incident occurred when Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff began fighting last year and it caused so much chaos that fans and the police got involved. In total, 41 players were suspended for that incident. Perhaps one of the more shocking incidents of this year occurred when the Baylor Lady Bears leader Brittney Griner threw a punch at one of Texas Tech’s team members during the NCAA tournament leading to the benches clearing. There has not been any word of any punishment being levied against Brittney.

As a somewhat cynical person, the overall amount of brutality that is evidenced in each of these leagues seem to be tolerated because we as fans get a little more excited when Urlacher lays someone out or one of the Blackhawks gets into a fight. But the question is when is it too much? Do players really need to be critically injured or lose years off of their lives to provide a better product? I really do not think so. I for one can enjoy a game just as much for the strategy and overall talent as I can for one big hit.

I honestly hope that more players will sue each league to force massive changes in how the leagues are run and to educate the players that are playing now and encourage them to think about someone’s career before they engage in a bounty system or throw a punch, because players are much more than commodities. They are living, breathing human beings who deserve better from their employers, managers, and their fans. I even witness this dehumanization in my every day sports leagues where the live hard, die hard motto is present. What about your recreational leagues, do you sometimes wonder if the manner in which you play is healthy or is it becoming a bit too brutal?

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