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Football, boxing, wrestling, MMA: Adapt to survive

brain football injuryFirst game on a football sideline for my wife. We’re back in the fall of 2000 here. I’m still a young sportswriter, we’re newlyweds, and this particular Friday night meant an early dinner, then high school football.

Life in the media.

Opening series, Albemarle went three-and-out and had to punt. The returner for Western Albemarle was set up around the Warriors’ 30.

I high-tailed it down to that area, the missus following behind, so I could mark the spot, for stats purposes.

The kid should have signaled for a fair catch. He had nowhere to go. But he didn’t.

The coverage unit did its job.

The sound that resulted was akin to a car crash.

My wife was done. She headed back up to the stands. And let me know later that football was off the approved list of sports for the one good kid that we were planning to have one day.

This was way, way before any of us knew anything about football and concussions. The NFL made boatloads of money selling those Hardest Hits videos that you’d see advertised late at night on ESPN.

We loved the crackback blocks where defenders chasing a runner would get gobsmacked into next week by a receiver coming out of nowhere, safeties who headhunted receivers coming over the middle.

You accepted that it was just part of the game that coaches expected their players to hit the bejeezus out of opponents to take and maintain control of the game from a physicality perspective.

Just as for me, also being a combat sports fan, man, boxing, two guys standing there, hitting each other in the head, hundreds of times, it didn’t register that, OK, sure, this can’t be good for either of them long term, but who was thinking long term?

I’m also a huge wrestling fan, and my favorite brand, back in the day, was ECW, Extreme Championship Wrestling, which featured guys putting each other through tables, hitting each other in the head with steel chairs, using barbed wire and tacks and fire in creative ways.

A lot of those guys, unfortunately, are dead, either from natural causes, or complications from drug addiction, basically self-medicating their broken bodies.

We’re seeing the same with football and boxing. You can’t stand across from a guy for an hour trading blows, after having trained for a fight for months, 40-45 times over the course of a career, and expect to walk away unscathed.

And you can’t have guys weighing 200 pounds, 250 pounds, 300 pounds and more and in between running into each other at speeds approaching 20 mph dozens of times a game, 20 games a year, plus practices, and not expect that their bodies, and brains, won’t be worse for the wear.

I still watch, football, boxing, wrestling, now also MMA, but not the same way I used to.

I never felt guilty about the violence before. The violence was why we watched, right? We wanted to see the big hit on the slant pass, the roundhouse right-vicious left hook combination, the powerbomb through a table on fire covered in barbed wire.

Now, most of us, anyway, realize that it’s real people who have to limp home after the game or the fight or the main-event match, who have real-life consequences that will linger on forever, as long as they’re here with us.

There are plenty who let themselves get worked up from the comfort of their couches about how sports has gotten soft, how the powers-that-be need to just let them play, how boxing was better when it was Marvin Hagler and Ray Leonard beating each other senseless for three rounds, not Roger Mayweather avoiding punches for 12.

The rest of us, me, specifically, I admit to ambivalence about the spectacles that I watch, and get paid to write about.

I’ve got no problem with the NFL and NCAA trying to rid football of the dangerous hits that scramble brains, and honestly, I think they can each do a lot more, and need to do a lot more. Boxing and MMA, come on, you want the sports to survive, put the competitors in the ring and the octagon in the headgear that they train in.

Wrestling has gotten away, largely, from the extreme violence of the 1990s. You don’t see guys taking unprotected headshots anymore, for example. But the performers still are treated as independent contractors, meaning they don’t have access to adequate healthcare, and have to work grueling schedules that have them on the road 250 days a year or more.

I want to be able to keep watching football, boxing, wrestling, MMA, but I just can’t identify with the Neanderthals who bemoan the good old days, when men were men, and they beat each other senseless for our pleasure.

My advice to those who can’t get past the rubbernecking aspect is, there’s actually a lot to the X’s and O’s of football, boxing, wrestling, MMA, that you can appreciate once you get past the violence.

But if you can’t, hey, I’m sure you can find the Hardest Hits videos for sale somewhere online, if you can figure out how to hook up a VCR to your smart TV.

Story by Chris Graham

 
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