The Problems with Football and Hockey

January 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

I watched both the AFC and NFC Championship games last weekend.  I haven’t watched as much football or even NHL hockey this year and I’ve been trying to figure out why.  In terms of hockey, my team sucks, but, I’ve remained a fan of hockey in general when the Habs have sucked in the past.  When it comes to the NFL, to be a Chicago Bears fan is to know misery.  They’ve sucked almost continually for the past 35 years.  So I’ve watched a lot of football, despite my team being in last place.

But this year, something has changed.  I have long had issues with football, the injuries, the concussions. I played football when I was younger.  I have lingering injury issues, and I don’t want to think about how many concussions I’ve had.  No one cared about head injuries in the late 80s/early 90s.  And then there’s the question of football and CTE.  I wrote about this a few months ago, when the Commissioner of the Canadian FootbalL League, Randy Ambrosie (a former CFL player) insisted that we don’t know if there’s a connection between CTE and football.  Funny, the NFL has admitted there is a connection.

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Houston Texans QB Tom Savage convulsing after hitting his head on the turf after being hit.

Hockey isn’t doing much better.  We have been subject to a steady stream of stories about ex-NHL players being caught up in drug addiction, depression, and early death.  This has happened to stars like Theoren Fleury and Mike Richards, and it’s happened to former enforcers, like Chris Nilan, Derek Boogard, and so on.  Earlier this month, I read an article about former enforcer Matt Johnson, who was in jail in Los Angeles after vandalizing a Denny’s restaurant on New Year’s Eve.  Johnson claimed to be homeless and refused legal help, at least initially.  His dad reported how worried he was about his son, and how much he’s tried to help him in recent years.  Or how about Kevin Stevens, who was one of the greatest power forwards of the early 90s, who devolved into addiction to painkillers?

To me, it seems that these athletes are sacrificing their bodies, their brains, and their futures to play.  And, yes, part of that is their own choice.  But, there are also structural issues here.  Teams have historically pushed their players to play injured or not.  Teams have pushed painkillers on players.  And then there’s brain injuries.  The NFL has come to an agreement with a group of former players for payouts for concussion damage, though there are problems there.

But that doesn’t do much for the current game.  Think of Houston quarterback Tom Savage continuing to play after appearing to convulse after hitting his head on the ground.  Or how about Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship game, when he was knocked silly by Barry Church of the Jacksonville Jaguars.  After the hit on Gronkowski, the Jaguars celebrated, and the commentators, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo (a former NFL quarterback), just carried on as if nothing major happened.

Then there’s the NHL.  A group of former players has brought a class-action suit against it.  The league’s response? To challenge the science behind the linkages between hockey and brain injuries.  Seriously.  It is otherwise doing next to nothing, beyond a ‘concussion protocol’ that is as much of a joke as the NFL’s.  This week, TSN in Canada reported that former NHL star Eric Lindros, whose career (and that of his brother) was ended by concussions, and Montreal Canadiens’ team physician Dr. David Mulder, approached the NHL last year and challenged the league to donate $31 million (or $1 million per team) to fund research in brain trauma. The league has ignored them.

And so, ultimately, I am finding it increasingly difficult to watch NFL or CFL football or NHL hockey.  Watching 200+ pound men smash into each other at full speed, in many cases purposely targeting the head is nauseating.  And wondering about the long-term effect of concussions is equally nauseating.

Both hockey and football are brutally physical sports.  Hockey is also played at incredible speeds on ice.  That’s part of the game.  Hitting is central to both.  I don’t have a problem with that.  I do have a problem with blatant head shots.  I have a problem with pumping players full of painkillers to get them back on the ice/field.  I have a problem with professional leagues denying a connection between concussions, head shots, and CTE.  I have a problem with commentators and fans acting like these kinds of hits are acceptable.

And until fans and advertizers really do question these forms of brutality against the bodies of professional athletes, nothing is going to change.

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Football and CTE

November 27, 2017 § 3 Comments

This past weekend was Grey Cup weekend in Canada.  The Toronto Argonauts and the Calgary Stampeders met at TD Place Stadium in the Nation’s Capital.  The Argos won 27-24 in another classic.  In the lead up to the game, Canadian Football League Commissioner Randy Ambrosie declared that ‘we don’t know‘ if there is a connection between CTE and football.  Around this time last year, the former CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said the same thing and was roundly criticized.  Ambrosie is being suitably raked over the coals.

But here’s the thing, Ambrosie should know better.  He is a former CFL player himself, he was a lineman for the Stampeders, Argonauts, and Edmonton Eskimos (why no one protests this name is beyond me).  Ironically, he retired due to injuries.  And he should know about the damage done to his own body by the game.  I am certainly aware of what football did to my body, between the cranky knees, shoulders, and, of course, the concussions (added to, of course, by hockey, where I played goalie).

More to the point, it looks pretty damn likely that there is a connection between football and CTE.  This is just media one story from this past summer (out of many) that reports on a study that found that 88% of brains donated by now-deceased former football players had some form of CTE.  CTE was also more prevalent in former professional players, as compared, to, say, high school players.

This is not complete proof positive of the link between football and CTE because CTE can only be diagnosed after death, and so far, studies have concluded nothing more than the commonality of the disease being present in the brains of former football players, as opposed to those who did not play.  But this isn’t a direct proof.  But, recent research has found that it may be possible to determine the presence of CTE in the brains of the living.   This may allow researchers to positively correlate football and CTE.

But, we are not there yet.  Nonetheless, Ambrosie’s comments are asinine at best, recklessly dangerous at worst.  And, either way, profoundly stupid.

The CFL has done a lot of good to reduce the stress on players’ bodies, from adding a 3rd bye-week during the season to banning full-contact practices.  But, it is still the subject of a class-action lawsuit focusing on brain damage (in this light, Ambrosie’s comments make some sense, but the better thing to have done would’ve been to deflect the question).

But Ambrosie’s statements last week threaten to undo that.  We should all expect better from the Canadian Football League.

The Centre Of The Universe?

December 2, 2016 § 2 Comments

An interesting thing has occurred in the realm of Canadian sports journalism in the past few weeks.  For those of you who don’t know, the English-language Canadian media is centred in Toronto, which every media outlet will remind you is “Canada’s largest city.”  The much smaller French-language media is centred in Montréal, which is Canada’s second largest city.  Toronto’s got a population of around 4.7 million, compared to Montréal’s 3.8 million.  Vancouver is third, closing in on 2 million.  And Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa are all around 1 million.  So we’re not looking at the situation in the UK, where London is the largest city and about 5 times larger than the second city, Birmingham.

But, reading Canadian sports media these days, and you’d be convinced that Toronto is the only city in Canada and that its sports teams are all wondrous, virtuous conquering heroes.  Never mind the fact that Toronto teams don’t really win much of anything ever.  The basketball Raptors and soccer Toronto FC have never won anything.  The hockey Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.  And the Blue Jays last won in 1993.  The Argonauts of the Canadian Football League are the really the only continually successful Toronto sports team, having last won the Grey Cup in 2012 (but, the CFL is a 9-team league, so law of averages…).

Toronto FC was engaged in a tense two-leg Eastern Conference final in the MLS Cup Playoffs against the Impact de Montréal, or IMFC.  An all-Canadian conference final should be one of those things that grip the nation, or at least get the media to recognize its import.  And while Sportsnet, the second of Canada’s sports networks, largely has, TSN, the largest sports network and MLS rights holder, has not.  It has openly and blatantly cheered for a TFC victory, and its coverage has exclusively treated IMFC as an interloper in TFC’s eventual, wondrous assent to the top of the North American soccer world.  On Wednesday afternoon, in advance of the second leg of the series, to be played at BMO Field in Toronto, TSN posted this article about the five keys to the match as its headline on TSN.ca.  Note that it’s all about what TFC needs to do to win.  This is just the most egregious example.  The rest of the coverage on TSN.ca Wednesday afternoon was all slanted towards TFC: its mindset heading into the match, which players it needs to excel, and so on.  Not a word from IMFC’s perspective, except for a feel-good story about the club’s 38-year old captain, and Montréal native, Patrice Bernier.

In the aftermath of the TFC’s victory Wednesday night, in a tense 5-2 match that went to Extra Time, allowing TFC to advance 7-5 on aggregate, TSN’s homepage was a torrent of TFC.  And while this is a good thing, and deserved, TFC won, it’s also still one-sided.  This was especially true of the headline that said “TFC MAKES CANADIAN SOCCER HISTORY.”  Factually, yes, it did.  It made the finals of the MLS Cup for the first time and is the first Canadian club to do so.  But, it did so after making history in an all-Canadian conference final.  And there was not a single story about IMFC and its own very improbable run to the conference finals.  TSN has continually picked against IMFC all season.  It predicted the Montréal side would miss the playoffs.  Then it wouldn’t get past DC United in the first round, or New York Red Bulls in the second round.  And so on.

On Thursday morning, TSN.ca’s home page featured no fewer than 12 features and stories about TFC out of the 28 in total.  Of the remaining 16 stories and features, 10 were about the Maples Leafs (7), Raptors (2), and Blue Jays (1).  One story was about how the Calgary Flames pummeled the Maple Leafs Wednesday night and another mocked Montréal Canadiens winger Andrew Shaw and his bad temper.  There’s a reason why Canadians in the Rest of Canada tend to dismiss TSN as Toronto’s Sports Network.

Meanwhile: Hockey.  The top team in the NHL right now is the Montréal Canadiens.  But, TSN’s coverage is almost exclusively about the amazing, wondrous Toronto Maple Leafs, who have a collection of burgeoning young stars and actually look like they might be a good team again one day.  There are also, you might note, five more Canadian teams in the NHL.  Sucks to be a fan of one of them: TSN just doesn’t care, other than to note the ways in which they’re failing.

And then Sportsnet.  Sportsnet is the rights holder for the NHL in Canada.  And while its coverage tends to be more national in nature, in that it notes that there are indeed teams in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montréal, besides Toronto, how about them kids in the T-Dot, y’all?  But Sportsnet can even out-do TSN.  On Wednesday, the American-based Forbes published its annual list of NHL teams ranked by value.  As always, the New York Rangers are the most valuable hockey team.  The Rangers are worth $1.25 billion USD.  But Sportsnet’s headline reads: “Maple Leafs Rank Third in Forbes’ Annual Most Valuable Team List.”  So, you think, well, that makes sense.  But, wait, what’s the second most valuable team in the National Hockey League?  Chicago?  Los Angeles?  The New York Islanders?  Nope.  It’s the Montréal Canadiens.

Now, I know we Quebecers had ourselves a couple of referenda on leaving the country, and we still harbour a pretty strong separatist movement; at any given time, around 35% of us want out of Canada.  But, in both 1980 and 1995, we chose to stay.  And 65% of us at any given time want to stick around in Canada.  And we keep giving Canada Prime Ministers.  In my lifetime, five of 9 prime ministers have been Quebecers.

So, in other words, my dear TSN and Sportsnet, Québec is part of Canada.  And Montréal remains one of the largest cities in North America, and also remains a major centre of global commerce.  And its soccer team isn’t that bad, even if its appearance in the Conference Finals is a surprise.  And its hockey team, which is, after all, the most decorated hockey team in the world, is the most valuable Canadian team.

And, if you just so happen to be one of those provincials from the rest of the country, well, as we say back home, tant pis.

The Sartorial Fail of the Modern Football Coach

January 13, 2016 § 2 Comments

As you may have heard, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide won the college football championship Monday night, defeating Clemson 45-40.  This has led to all kinds of discussion down here in ‘Bama about whether or not Coach Nick Saban is the greatest coach of all time.  See, the greatest coach of all time, at least in Alabama, is Paul “Bear” Bryant, the legendary ‘Bama coach from 1957 until 1982.

Bear won 6 national titles (though, it is worth noting the claim of Alabama to some of these titles is tenuous, to say the least).  Saban has now won 5 (only 4 at Alabama, he won in 2003 at LSU).  I don’t particularly give a flying football about this argument, frankly.  But as I was watching the game on Monday night, everytime I saw Nick Saban, I just felt sad.

EP-301129814Nick Saban is a reasonably well-dressed football coach, so there is that.  But, he looks like he should be playing golf.  Poorly-fitting pants and and a team-issued windbreaker.  He could be worse, he could be Bill Bellichk of the New England Patriots, who tends to look homeless on the sidelines.the-real-reason-bill-belichick-is-always-wearing-those-cutoff-sweatshirts But that’s not saying much, is it?

Saban and Bellichick are a far cry from Bear Bryant and Tom Landry, the legendary Dallas Cowboys coach.  Bryant and Landry both wore suits on the side lines. Bryant did have an unfortunate taste for houndstooth, of course. But Landry stood tall in his suit and fedora.nfl_landry_01

There’s something to be said for looking sharp on the sidelines.  I miss these well-dressed coaches.

Sports Journalists and the English Language: #Fail

December 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

I just read an article on Sportsnet.ca about the Toronto Maple Leafs.  I don’t like the Leafs, and I enjoy it when they lose, something they’re doing a lot of right now.  But, something about this article seemed unfair, like it was piling on.  Chris Johnston starts off his article by saying “The word “crisis” is now being attached to the Toronto Maple Leafs and after just seven wins in the last 22 games it really isn’t much of a stretch.”  Right away, my eyebrows go up when I see language like this.  The passive voice.  The word is being attached to the Leafs.  By whom? In what circumstances?  When?  Why?  Johnston isn’t interested in answering any of that.  It turns out, the word “crisis” was pitched at Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle by another Toronto journalist, Steve Simmons.  And Carlyle wouldn’t commit to the word.

So it turns out “[t]he word ‘crisis’ is now being attached to the Toronto Maple Leafs” by another sports journalist.  So two guys who cover the Leafs think this (I’m sure many of the fans do).  It reminded me a lot of the hullabaloo swirling around the Chicago Bears last week when news broke that starting quarterback Jay Cutler was ready to return from injury.  This would normally be a good thing, except that his backup, Josh McCown, was the reigning offensive player of the week.  One blogger for ESPNChicago began arguing that McCown should be the starter and, suddenly, all of ESPN was making this claim, arguing that “voices” had been calling for McCown.

The Leafs and Bears examples are reflective of a general shift in sports journalism I have noticed of late.  Journalists are desperate to reach readers and viewers, so the coverage gets more and more shrill.  In the case of the Bears and Leafs examples, journalists are attempting to create stories, to give themselves traction so that they can later claim they were the ones who ‘broke’ the story.  A classic example of the tale wagging the dog.

This general shift has also lead to a loose relationship between the English language and events the journalists are attempting to describe.  For example, last weekend, the Boston Bruins played in Vancouver and were hammered by the Canucks 6-2.  After the game, Bruins forward, Milan Lucic, who is from Vancouver, went out to blow off some steam.  For his efforts, he claims he was punched in the face twice by some idiot, which led to a lot of shouting and masculine preening in front of some guy who filmed it on his phone and the Vancouver police.  A Bruins journalist, Joe Haggerty, called this a “street brawl” in an article on-line.  Some idiot throwing a couple of punches is many things, a brawl it is not.

In watching highlights of the Montréal Canadiens’ game against Phoenix last night, a TSN commentator on SportsCentre claimed the Habs couldn’t “buy a goal,” about a half second before showing highlights of the Canadiens’ first goal in a 3-1 win.  Obviously, they didn’t need to buy a goal, they scored three of them.  This is like the football commentator I saw this weekend reporting that the Dallas Cowboys had scored 24 unanswered points before showing us how the Green Bay Packers came back to win the game.  Obviously those points were answered.

These are a wide variety of recent examples in the world of sports journalism of writers and broadcasters having a loose grip on reality and a dodgy relationship to the meaning of the words they use.  While I realise that we live in a somewhat post-modern world, but words do still have meaning.  But in the world of sports journalism, at least, editors and producers seem to have forgotten this.  And more’s the pity for it.

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