12 Heads Up, Don’t Duck

Harriet Smith

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How do we resolve the relationship between sport and injury? In this essay, Smith explores the seemingly contradictory aggression of contact sport and the sense of peace and calmness that follows for many. Smith engages with the work of Steve Almond, probing the long-term impact of contact sport on physical and mental health. Tracing the ethics of competition, Smith critiques the dangerous and irresponsible attitude of coaches who risk player’s lives, uncovering the sense of shame that is cultivated around injuries in the world of sport.

Harriet Smith


ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing

Day Month Year

Heads Up, Don’t Duck

The slam of fists on a metal hallway. Condensation and the smell of beer hanging in the air around your head. Rowdy, red-jersey wearing Midwesterners crash against your shoulder and you lean back into them. There’s a short woman bouncing up and down in excitement about to get lost in the shuffle. Suddenly she’s hoisted up onto someone’s shoulders as the crowd releases a deafening cheer, celebrating their victory over the New Englanders. There’s very little space to move around, and the only way you can make it to your car is to be carried by the swarm. But you don’t feel threatened. In fact, there’s a sense of community, even safety. You look around and see small children in the embrace of their parents offering high fives to anyone their stubby arms can reach, ecstatic to be wearing the same jersey as the rest of the group. Ice hockey, much like football and other classic American pastimes, instills a sense of belonging and purpose that is unique to the world of sports.

Two years ago, Steve Almond published his book Against Football, illustrating the torsion of growing up a football fan while also realizing the brutality of the way the game is played. In the chapter from his book, “You Knock My Brains Out This Sunday and I Knock Your Brains Out the Next Time We Meet”, it’s made clear that Almond, like many others, enjoys the sport in part for its violence and aggression rather than simply for the finesse. Watching another human slam into the rubbery turf or hearing the crack of shoulder pads and shins offers a release of the instinctual aggression that we are hard pressed to find in the regulated, modern world. Anyone who’s ever been to a Red Wings game in their hometown of Detroit at 11:30pm, surrounded by hundreds of red-clad drunken Michiganders, will know that it’s hard to find something that gives you a rush quite like that. At some point, humans need to find a way to exploit that rush and release that day-to-day frustration. I was out in the woods the other day, watching the leaves fall in the same pattern as they do every Fall and found myself picking up a large, uneven branch. After a few moments of looking between the branch and a nearby evergreen tree, I took the branch like a bat in my hands and slammed it against the trunk of the tree with everything I had. Bits of wood and bark flew in every direction, and a deeply satisfying crack punctuated the quiet space of the woods. After hurling what was left of the branch through the ragged woods, I picked up another branch and hit the tree again. And again, and again. With every snap of wood I felt better, more at peace. For many, contact sports provide that same sense of calm.

But there’s an unspoken, sombre side to the sports industry. Almond discusses evidence of serious long-term athletic injuries, some of which are nearly inevitable in the NFL and similarly violent sports. Researchers have found that many professional athletes, football players in particular, suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (or CTE), which may cause early-onset Alzheimer’s-like symptoms and result in a lifespan of ten to twenty years shorter than average. Even speaking from the perspective of a life-long fan, Almond’s essay calls out for a change in football culture, and perhaps even the culture of the professional sports industry as a whole. Using a few fairly tragic examples, Almond explains just how bizarre the players’ psychological deterioration can become. Justin Strzelczyk was a former Steelers offensive lineman, and at the age of 36 he led police on a high-speed chase until ramming his car into the side of a truck, going 90 mph. His body showed no signs of intoxication. Further examination of his brain indicated that he was suffering from CTE, which severely warped his mind and view of reality. At the age of forty-five, “Steelers lineman Terry Long drank antifreeze” (Almond 26), likely due to head trauma related depression. The list of similar events is extensive. Sure, they’re paid millions of dollars per season, but a disproportionate number of players experience mental dysfunction highly atypical of men their age. Running back Tony Dorsett began experiencing depression and memory loss in his 50’s, and “[admits] he gets lost driving his daughters to their sports games” (Almond 23). An entire industry has been dedicated to constructing safer sports equipment, but the dangers associated with collision sports seem to be unavoidable.

While watching football from the comfort of your couch, you see dozens of horrific but exhilarating hits per game. As a boy, Almond would use this gladiator-esque sport as his way of releasing the rage that built up within his home. The clash of helmets, the snap of tugging cloth and flying turf. As one player’s shoulder dings the corner of another player’s head, you may wince a little bit. As you well should. Only after years of speculation did Almond realize the grotesquely high tolls taken on NFL players. But still we cheer. We buy the jerseys and those silly foam fingers, we turn on the TV every Sunday night, and we ultimately support the madness. Almond recounts a conversation he had with Dr. Ann McKee, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, in which she admitted to being an avid Packers fan while dissecting the brain of a young woman who had suffered multiple concussions during a game of rugby. Sports are so fundamental to our society that we can’t help but sideline their negatives. And it’s not only football; all competitive sports have huge pitfalls when it comes to long-term injuries. The NFL is just one piece of a larger destructive, if not appalling industry.

Almond tells us that it’s unethical to encourage such a dangerous game, and it would be hard to disagree. However, the dangers of football run deeper than just physical injury. At the core of competitive sports lies an issue far more personal. “Injury prone’ has become synonymous with cowardly or weak-willed” (Almond 30), to the extent that players will play hurt because they are afraid of public or peer opinion, and of losing their job. Fighting through an injury makes you look tough. What’s worse is that the coaches and trainers are responsible for pumping players full of painkillers and sometimes even steroids to speed up recovery time (among other reasons). As Almond mentions, in 2002, Patriots’ linebacker Ted Johnson returned to practicing only days after receiving a concussion. Despite being told by the team’s trainer that he was not cleared for contact his coach, the well-known Bill Belichick, marked him with a “full-contact” jersey. Only minutes into the practice, Johnson experienced a second major concussion and was rushed to the emergency room. Bill Belichick’s response to the incident was appalling. He said if “Ted felt so strongly that he didn’t feel he was ready to practice with us, he should have told me” (qtd in Almond 29). Coaches like Belichick shirk their duties as professionals to consider the best interest of their players. By instructing Johnson to enter a full-contact situation, he put the man’s life at risk for no added value to the individual or the team.

Playing ice hockey, I became familiar with the pressure to “play hurt”. Nearly every season I encountered a concussion or a similar injury. My forehead would slam into the boards and I would go down, stars clouding the periphery of my vision and my legs suddenly unbearably shaky. But I’d clamber back up, shake my throbbing head, rest for a shift or two on the bench and go right back out. My coach would tell the school trainer to perform a baseline concussion test but to clear me for play, no matter the results. When I partially tore my left patella tendon, and my knee swelled three times its normal size, it was deemed a “sore knee”. She used the threat of mockery to keep me playing the rest of the season. Even at a high-school level, failure to perform due to a physical injury is extremely shameful. The stakes can only rise from there.

Competitive sports have woven themselves into modern society because they offer a glisten of a better future. The best players in our league were the players who depended on success in ice hockey to grant them a more productive, fulfilling life. Their impressive athletic abilities gave them a way into a good prep school, and maybe a good university with a sports scholarship. The same goes for many of the individuals who play for the NFL. Almond’s essay acknowledges that playing for a professional team promises a steady and high income that players can use to lift themselves and their families into a state of financial stability. Many of these men came from next to nothing, and football was their ticket out. But this road to riches only exists as long as they can perform at an elite level and can provide a high enough entertainment value for spectators. This often equates to playing through injuries and ultimately degrading their overall health throughout their career until they are inevitably forced to retire due to mental or physical inability to keep up with the ruthless culture.

The set of rules and regulations practiced in the NFL doesn’t protect players from sub concussive hits or other forms of relatively minor injuries that can pile up over time. Or even if they do, coaches, peers, and the droves of fans often push players to play through their injuries, shoving them to the brink of possibly life-threatening situations. This dynamic is clear in football because it’s one of the most highly televised sporting events. The annual Super Bowl alone generates millions of dollars in league revenue, and is fundamentally irreplaceable. And despite being bored senseless by watching two and a half hours of a football game, I can’t envision our culture without it. Perhaps something else would step up to take its place, or perhaps our society would be a healthier, happier place. Either way, as a core of American tradition, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to football and its many problems. In the coming years research and methods of physical therapy will continue to develop, and I’ll be wearing my Michigan State Spartans jersey this Sunday.

Works Cited

Almond, Steve. “You Knock My Brains Out This Sunday and I Knock Your Brains Out the Next Time We Meet.” Opening Conversations: A Writer’s Reader, edited by Haivan V. Hoang et al. Hayden-McNeil, 2015, pp. 19-33.

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