17 Readers Weigh the Risks in Sports
“A life of risks not taken is not a life worth living,” one writes.
This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Last week I asked readers, “What do you think about the health and safety risks that are inherent in sports?”
Lauren says she’s grappled with the question as the mother of a teenage athlete:
My son, 16, dislocated his left pinky last night during a basketball game. After an ER visit and a resetting procedure that left me traumatized, my son asked the doctor, turned mechanic, when he could play again. This would be my son’s fourth sports-related injury in three years. He had two identical knee injuries his freshman year and broke his wrist his sophomore year. But these breaks don’t scare me as much as the hit he took during last lacrosse season. He ended up being fine, but I went to bed that night with a 50-pound rock sitting somewhere in the middle of my chest. What kind of mom am I who lets her son continue to play sports in spite of the mental and physical pain he’s experienced? How could I ever forgive myself if he was seriously injured beyond a break or dislocation?
What’s it all for? Is it worth it? These questions are keeping me up tonight. But tomorrow I’ll awake to a son who, in spite of a recently dangling pinky, will count himself one day closer to getting back out there. Who wraps his arms around all the physical, mental, and social benefits of playing sports. Who is driven by playing with and for teammates. Who will drink up the invigorating glass of being team captain this year. Who believes that injury, including the four he’s had in three years, is a matter of being unlucky.
If I follow my protective parental instincts, he’d be playing the bass clarinet and arriving at school in a custom bubble. Since that’s not an option, I am stuck with telling him to be careful. That I love him. And all the while I’m hoping that the same magic that smudges his memory of injury is equally strong enough to help me get through the season.
Denis describes a harrowing series of runs that he’s gone on over the years:
I trail run. Usually hours before dawn. Without a light. Yesterday I went down in the mud and my phone smashed so hard into my chest that I thought I was having a heart attack. It feels like I’ve broken a rib but in reality it’s just deep bruising across my pectoral muscle. This morning I was out again. Same trail. Same time. More mud. No torch.
Last weekend I was on the north coast of Scotland. As I headed into the hills I chatted to a crofter who warned me of the dangers: “Lots of people get lost up there.” But I ran up into the wilderness of the Mhoine peninsula on a short winter day in the teeth of a blizzard.
When I lived in Malaysia I used to run deep in the jungle. Often I’d be the only person using a trail that week, in dense forest without phone signals. I persuaded a doctor to prescribe me opiates to keep in my first aid kit so that I could crawl out if I broke my leg. Along the way I chopped my fingers off with a machete, had a pit viper fall on me, fell into a coma from heat exhaustion, hallucinated that I was walking with a long dead Himalayan mountaineer and clocked 100 kilometers per hour in the fast lane of a motorway on my pushbike.
I think about risk all the time. Every few minutes I am weighing the consequences of this or that decision, looking for the path that carries me close but not over the cliff. Most of the time I get it right. Sometimes it goes wrong, and then I fall back onto prepared Plan B (I could have survived for a couple of days on my Scottish trip with the stove and tent tucked away in my bag). One day, though, Plans B, C, D and on will fail. I’ll sit there in the cold wondering how beautiful it is and how lucky I was before sense slips away.
The day I came back from my exciting motorway madness, raving how I overtook a Porsche 911 on the chicanes, my wife gently took my hand. She held my ring finger and asked, “Why do you wear this?” I felt a flash of guilt and promised not to be so crazy again. I was sincere, but [what it meant in practice] was that I improved my contingency planning.
The blunt reality is that I am happiest when I am alone in the wilderness. When I come back I am a better husband, father and entrepreneur. The wilderness, with all its discomfort and pain, is a form of mindfulness that enables me to find balance. The cost, the risk, and the dangers are far, far smaller than the dangers of being a stay-at-home survivor.
Ethically, I’d argue that I am finding a spot on Aristotle’s golden mean. What I do is a point of balance. Not too little, not too much. It is my approach to a eudaimon life. My wife doesn’t see the balance that way but she respects my desire to grow, not be contained.
Thomas reflects on the risks he once he took at altitude:
Some years ago, in middle age, I climbed [Scotland’s Ben Nevis mountain] where, as you cited, a climber recently died in an avalanche. I went up the path instead of the very challenging north face. I could see how steep it was.
Ben Nevis is about 4000 feet vertical. It rained for the first 2000 feet, then snowed for the second 2000. The path near the top was narrow, on a very steep slope—snow-covered near the top, and therefore locally hazardous. I ran into a couple of American college students near the top of the path who were a little apprehensive. I reassured them that we would make it, and it was nice to have the company of fellow countrymen.
When we reached the nearly flat summit, a British bloke asked me if I had a compass and knew the compass bearing to the top. It was a reasonable question because we had been in the clouds for the previous 1000 vertical feet so the visibility was about 20 feet. The path we had come up was the only safe way down and failing to find it could have been problematic. I told him that I had a compass and told him the compass bearing. I was a geology professor, so such considerations were not foreign to me. I didn’t tell him that although I was wearing gloves, my hands were too numb from being wet and cold to take the compass out of my daypack. We followed the path through the snow.
Why do I tell this pertinent but somewhat superfluous story? In everything we do, there are risks. I remember the story because the risk was worth taking.
When I was a little younger, I drove to Colorado and hiked or snowshoed a few times a year. There was some risk in being alone in the backcountry on snowshoes, but the greatest risk was the 20-hour drive to get out there and the similar drive back. But millions of people who commute to work suffer that cumulative risk every few weeks.
When I was 40 years old, I met a woman with a 15-month-old daughter. I quickly became an important person in the life of that little person. My name was one of her first words. I soon consciously decided to stop doing some of the hazardous things I had done in Colorado. Did I forgo some things I would have enjoyed? Sure. Am I sorry? No. Sporting endeavors are risk-reward compromises, as are many things in life.
When I was a kid in Iowa City, very much a football town, I played a lot of sandlot football, always without a helmet. Sometimes I had a mild headache when I walked home. Without football, could I have earned a Ph.D. in physics instead of geology? Probably not. In high school I was on the JV basketball team. I played hard and conscientiously, as is my way, but I was not good. I told my friends that my goal was to get a statistic. I finally scored a free throw, which my friends cheered. Are such athletic exploits important? Of course not. Yet, more than half a century later, I still remember the response of my friends. One should engage in all these things, but intelligently, and with a responsible awareness of the risks, to oneself and to others.
Ed recalls an iconic boxing match that influenced his perspective on the spectacle of contact sports:
In 1971, several school buddies encouraged me to attend a live, large-screen viewing of the fight between the two undefeated world champions, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. I was not a regular boxing fan, but this was a major event. One fellow even coerced me into a $50 bet, which was a large amount for me and not something I normally do.
My friends were all for Ali, but I bet on Frazier because he was the underdog and my father (a boxing fan) assured me Frazier would win. On the big screen, the fight was upfront and vicious. Ali, with laser focus, was artfully pounding Frazier, while Frazier—with arms up and head down—was taking blow after concussive blow as if he were a punching bag. It seemed impossible for Frazier to last. But as each round passed, Ali slowly lost steam. As the fight progressed, Frazier came to life with his own equally powerful blows and punched back. I and the entire wildly excited audience were filled with adrenaline as we watched Frazier knock Ali down in the 15th round and win the fight.
As I realized Frazier won and I had won my bet, I felt a sharp pain in the center of my chest. My heart skipped a beat and I had to sit down knowing I had witnessed a most brutal fight—and knowing it was all wrong! It was as wrong to cheer now as it was wrong for Roman spectators to cheer the death of the gladiators or slaves. I have not watched boxing since.
All intentional-contact sports are blood sports. The intentional injury to another for entertainment is wrong and not something we should allow in the name of sport. The blindness of our society to this form of violence is not healthy to the participants or spectators.
Mike confesses, “I am a big fan of an incredibly dangerous sport: professional wrestling.” He writes:
The WWE and various smaller independent pro-wrestling promotions are sports. And they really are dangerous. Men and women injure themselves regularly in the ring. Owen Hart, a member of the famous Hart family of Canadian wrestlers, died in the ring.
The head trauma, performance-enhancing-drug use, and painkiller abuse in wrestling has led to countless early deaths among wrestlers. And yet every week, pro wrestling draws millions of viewers on television and thousands of fans to live shows. The fans know it’s dangerous and that for all the predetermined outcomes and scripted matches, there is real pain. And that’s part of the draw. It’s the real pain and the performance of pain and the blurry line between the two that makes modern pro wrestling captivating.
In some ways, I think that pro-wrestling fans and pro-wrestling companies are more honest than the NFL and its fans. Wrestling [fans and pros] admit it’s dangerous and that the blood and risk isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. The NFL hasn’t faced its violence, much less accepted it.
That brings us to football, a sport many of you focused on. Ira, a retired pediatric cardiologist, shared some expertise about what likely caused the NFL player Damar Hamlin’s heart to stop after a tackle last week:
Hamlin probably experienced commotio cordis, a rare but well-known risk from a sudden, reasonably strong, and discrete blow to the left anterior chest wall that hits at the quite brief instant called the vulnerable period of the cardiac cycle, causing ventricular fibrillation. The vulnerable period lasts a few milliseconds. To cause ventricular fibrillation, a blow to the chest must be sharp, localized to a small area, and at precisely the right fraction of a second in the cardiac cycle. And, of course, only a very few such blows will cause this catastrophe.
Of the rare, perhaps 30, instances of commotio cordis reported yearly in the United States, most occur in younger individuals, possibly because the rib cage is more easily depressed by a blow, thereby directly affecting the heart––and most often from a baseball or softball strike, because these are hard and can cause a severe impact over a small area of the chest. In my more than 50-year career in Pediatric Cardiology at the University of Florida College of Medicine, I cared for one Gainesville High School student who was struck in the chest by a batted baseball, resulting in this catastrophic event. Fortunately, paramedics were immediately available, recognized the diagnosis and defibrillated the youngster. Our care was only to establish that the child's heart was basically normal.
Most life activities carry some risk; sports are no exception. The possibility of injury or, very uncommonly, death does not, in my view, warrant avoiding sports. Knowledge of what is possible and acting accordingly to reduce risk to a minimum is the responsibility of those supervising all sports.
Brad wants to stop football in schools:
Athletics that entail a substantial risk of serious injury should be universally curtailed and, in some cases, banned. I’ve been a school administrator (at the PK–12 level) since 2008. Two of the schools where I worked had American-football teams, and I strongly believe the existence of both teams was and is irresponsible. Anybody who respects the brain or expects to build a career on the ability to use their brain should forgo a sport that verifiably damages the brain of almost everyone who plays it. This lesson is particularly important for children, whose brains are still developing.
I witnessed one particularly tragic set of circumstances for one student. He entered my highly competitive school as a bright and hardworking student. Football broke him. After a catastrophic in-game concussion, he eventually returned to school unable to focus. The disability was so extreme that he was not able to graduate from the school. His brain was his superpower, and high-school football destroyed it. Put simply: no child should ever play tackle football. And most adults should reconsider whether it’s wise.
Like Ed, RD likens football players to gladiators in a Roman arena:
While our society recognizes the many risks of football, we seem unwilling to do more than tweak the rules, improve the equipment, etc. while tolerating injuries and legal liabilities on a continuing basis. Football is on its way—slowly—toward joining the same category of sport as prizefighting; that is, it’s becoming a violent and embarrassing relic of an earlier time with cruder sensibilities.
A few high schools have discontinued their football programs, but almost no colleges or universities have. And of course, professional football is still such a moneymaker that no one dares to suggest restraining, let alone killing, the cash cow. The players make millions; the owners make many multiples of that; the TV networks win lucrative audience ratings and huge advertising revenues; and the fans are happy.
So, what’s not to love? Did the ancient Romans want the spectacle of gladiators fighting each other to the death to stop? From today’s perspective, that whole business seems barbaric. But the ancient Romans had the thrills of the Coliseum; we have our enormous football stadiums. So, on to the Super Bowl!
John invokes glory and reaches a different conclusion about the sport:
I’m getting older now, but I never cease to be actively jealous of those that reach the highest level of sports. People can clutch all their pearls and speak all their platitudes. Many, many people would take very great risks to step out onto that field for the cheering adoration of millions, along with the paychecks that sometimes follow. Ask nearly any player, even those retired with debilitating injuries, and I suspect a very large majority will believe it was all worth it.
A while back, I was watching a high-school football game, and the players all met in a giant huddle before the game to get psyched up for the game. Even at that level, the rewards are so great that the risks are small in comparison. Life is full of risks, and a life of risks not taken is not a life worth living.
Jaleelah suggests nudging kids toward alternatives to football:
Only an individual adult can determine whether a certain risk is “worth it.” People do drugs and eat unhealthy foods. Neither the state nor your doctor can force you to run a mile a day, even though it lowers your risk of hypertension. At the same time, we should recognize that friends, talents, and local sports infrastructure will determine the “reward” of playing any given sport.
In many counties, football is the most accessible children’s sport. I’d wager that in these counties, there are more fields, more coaches, and more sponsors for youth football leagues than basketball and hockey combined. Children naturally want to exercise and play with their friends. When their two options are playing football and running around the block alone, of course they’ll choose the former.
I have firsthand experience being redirected away from dangerous sports. I was good at football and rugby in gym class, and I wanted to play on my school’s teams; gender barriers and parental intervention, respectively, stopped me. I’m glad. Baseball and soccer were viable options, and I had lots of fun playing them. Governments, universities, and parents should make sure all children have access to safe ways to play sports.
DH castigates college football specifically:
College football poses a greater risk to the health and safety of the players than pro football. Pros have a union that has bargained for medical insurance to cover the injuries that occur. Salaries are guaranteed regardless of injury. Well-paid trainers and medical doctors work for all the teams. A college-football scholarship is a one-year contract that guarantees tuition and books. The player must provide their own medical insurance. And the player may not have the scholarship renewed the following year because of injury.
The greatest risk for the player is the culture surrounding the treatment of injuries by the sports-medicine staff. This is because the football trainers are put under the authority of the head football coach instead of being independent health-care professionals. They are expected to diagnose and manage a variety of injuries for a roster of more than 100 players. These trainers are compromised by the football programs’ priorities of winning, managing the roster, and dismissing injuries. Unless they’re a star, the injured player may be treated as if they had done something wrong or were exaggerating the extent of the injury.
My son was seriously injured at a Division I college playing football, and the trainer turned out to be incompetent. Worse was the culture that sent injured players to a low-level strength coach to do busywork instead of rehabilitation. Players came back to practice still injured rather than be considered a malingerer.
Michele indicts college athletics in America more broadly:
The dream of million-dollar contracts in professional sports or the promise of elite-college acceptance––orders of magnitude more likely as a recruited athlete compared with a valedictorian scholar––holds holy grail–esque allure for kids and parents, who realign their tolerance for life imbalance and health risks by pursuing sports specialization.
Colleges receive more applications than ever, but there are now fewer ways for applicants to stand out. High schools inflate grades. Students need to try to achieve greatness outside of school to distinguish themselves.
It is ironic that colleges are ending standardized testing to evaluate merit because testing has been deemed demographically unfair. Yet golf, fencing, tennis, hockey, and arguably all other sports-recruited admissions continue without recognizing the disproportionality regarding the significant investments required to groom young athletes from early childhood. Few recruited athletes are merely the stars of their public-high-school teams; they are playing on club teams in the off-season and in sports “camps” over summers. Equipment, coaching, physical therapy, tutoring to make up for lost class time, travel tournaments … all of that starts being very expensive as early as elementary school.
In any economy, subsidies distort. Athletic scholarships and admissions based purely on athletics are exactly that distortion. Colleges make tremendous money from some of their sports, fueling the cycle. The externalities of the true costs of injuries in college and the costs of grooming the elite athlete for college are not adequately factored into the scholarships.
Few universities abroad give any consideration to athletic abilities in admission, yet their students still enjoy the benefits of collegiate athletic competition while enrolled. In the U.S., are sports worth it? Doesn’t matter while the grail is still out there to chase.
Steve believes that modern youth sports carries excessive health risks:
I am not someone who believes that any injury risk is unacceptable. I have played and coached sports for more than 40 years and have seen and had my share of injuries. That said, how did we get here with our kids, and how can we continue knowing what we know? Would anyone recommend having your kid run their head into a wall numerous times a week (football)? How about playing the same sport every day for 12 months and risking repetitive stress injuries? Instead of coach pitch baseball, who’d recommend having 12-year-olds throw 50-plus pitches as hard as they can two to three times a week?
If you look at the kids, most of them are not happy with the stress and are burned out well before they get through high school. It only gets worse for those who play in college. Division III schools, once the bastion of the student athlete, now scout varsity athletes and develop 12-month training programs that put the pros from 40 years ago to shame.
The stress created from these programs suck the joy out of the sport.
Spencer, on the other hand, believes today’s society is too risk-averse:
I strongly support people playing any risky sport they want. Americans have grown far less risk tolerant over the past century as society becomes safer and wealthier, and deprive themselves of the experience of confronting and overcoming danger. The result is a country that overreacts to problems like terrorism and COVID (especially post-vaccine).
The neurotic concern for safety, whether dealing with COVID, terrorism, or “dangerous” opinions, has made the country meaningfully less free. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. gave a speech in 1895 to the graduating class at Harvard, called “The Soldier’s Faith.”
One part of it is as follows:
“High and dangerous action teaches us to believe as right beyond dispute things for which our doubting minds are slow to find words of proof. Out of heroism grows faith in the worth of heroism. The proof comes later, and even may never come.
Therefore I rejoice at every dangerous sport which I see pursued. The students at Heidelberg, with their sword-slashed faces, inspire me with sincere respect. I gaze with delight upon our polo-players. If once in a while in our rough riding a neck is broken, I regard it, not as a waste, but as a price well paid for the breeding of a race fit for headship and command.”
Athletes in dangerous sports are taking their lives in their hands, and that’s a good thing. Familiarity with danger is an antidote to the neuroticism that has overtaken American society.
Mike concurs that risk is a good worth conserving:
As a culture, we have spent the last decades working to remove risk from every area of human life. In most cases, this is an admirable goal. Safety and comfort are the hallmarks of an advanced technological culture. That said, the notion of uncertainty and risk (when understood intelligently) can be ennobling, invigorating, and can carry an emotional impact unmatched by restricted “safe” activities.
Whether rock climbing, surfing, or performing other “extreme” sports or potentially violent team sports such as football or rugby, there is a thrill of competition—against nature, one’s self, or another team—that is essential to the human condition. This is absolutely worth the risk when freely chosen by informed adults. We can do what we can to mitigate the risk—safety equipment, medical professionals, training, rules—but if all the risk is gone, something fundamental is lost.
Glenn defends taking risks to play sports, but recommends against the one that he loved most:
In my younger days, I rode rodeo bulls for fun. We had no helmets or flak jackets as the riders now use. It was the most fun I have ever had, and nothing else comes close: the most exciting, mettle-testing, electrifying, adrenaline-inducing experience that I have ever participated in … that I cannot recommend. It’s just not smart to tie yourself to the back of a 1000-pound animal that does not want you there.
Sports, at their best, are character- and community-building. Is there such a thing as too extreme? Yes! I just don’t know where that line is for you. (This may not be true of the foolish pastime of my younger days, but it is riskier to drive the Houston freeway every day than to play most sports.)
I discouraged my children from taking up my chosen sport. There are all kinds of things I enjoyed as a young man that I just don’t do anymore because I have a wife and family that depend on me. Part of adulthood is walking away from good things for better things. But it is not clear to me that walking away from sports for safety is a better thing.
JM believes that longevity of life is overrated:
One of the fallacies of life is that the goal is pure distance, that injuries should be avoided at all costs, and that success is measured in life lived. Sports unites us. You build relationships with your teammates. They teach you to work together, to be better, to motivate each other and your community.
A love of sport is the one thing that literally unites humanity. Sports of all kinds inspire people to aspire to higher levels, to greater lofts. They are the simplest way to teach us that more is possible, that greater can be achieved. Sports are able to do this on a population level; they are the only thing that can make the wealthiest and poorest among us weep both tears of joy and sadness at the same time. How many years of your life would you give to inspire a city, a country, or, in the case of [the soccer players Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi], a planet?