The Price Our Gladiators Pay

Baltimore's Willis McGahee and Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark after colliding in the AFC championship game Jan. 18.
Baltimore's Willis McGahee and Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark after colliding in the AFC championship game Jan. 18. (By Rob Carr -- Associated Press)

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By Wendy MacLeod
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I'm a woman who loves football, as many do, and I will be glued to my television set on Super Bowl Sunday. I'm also a drama professor who loves football, which is where my part of the Venn diagram gets a bit smaller.

I find the geometry of the game endlessly fascinating. I love the combination of instinct and experience that allows a defensive player to read a play and sack the quarterback or intercept a pass. I love how a running back finds a gap where there was none. I love the unpredictability of the game, how the outcome can seem certain when suddenly the momentum shifts.

And yet, given how often the players are injured, I worry that we've become like the jaded spectators who watched the gladiators in ancient Rome. I feel a little guilty, and wonder whether others do as well, about the injuries players suffer for our entertainment.

In a single year, the typical NFL team reportedly sustains one significant injury for every player; some force players to miss a game, some are season-ending. Seeing the collision during the recent AFC championship game between the Baltimore Ravens' Willis McGahee and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ryan Clark was like watching someone get hit by a car. When Clark's helmet hit, McGahee's neck snapped backward. When McGahee didn't get up, it was impossible not to fear the worst. Paralysis? Death? The announcers assured us that McGahee's limbs were moving, that the tackle was legal. The motorized cart trundled the gurney off the field and the game went on.

I searched for news about McGahee but found disappointingly little in the next couple of days. I came across one tasteless posting on YouTube, a video clip entitled "Willis McGahee Gets 'Jacked Up' by Ryan Clark . . . HD Quality . . . Hardest Hit Ever!!!" One sports fan, "Raw Dawg," seemed to capture the ethos best when he responded to an online article about football's traumatic head injuries with a posting: "Get back in there and play! You just got your bell rung!" Eventually, I spotted an NFL injury list on in which McGahee's playing status was shown as "probable." So we assume, and hope, he's all right. But is he?

NFL players are larger than ever, which inevitably makes collisions more dangerous. In 1980, only 20 NFL players weighed more than 300 pounds. Now the average NFL offensive lineman weighs more than that. Weight training builds up the larger muscles, but the weak spots remain: the neck, the knees, the fingers, the ankles. And the brain.

The results of multiple concussions include headaches, mood swings, depression, and dementia, as well as increased likelihood of alcoholism, other forms of substance abuse, Alzheimer's disease and even suicide. Difficulties with concentration can make it difficult for players to hold down jobs after they leave the NFL. The Canadian investigative television show "Fifth Estate" has reported that the life expectancy of an NFL player is 55, or, put another way, as much as 20 years less than that of the general population. For linemen, life expectancy is closer to 52 years.

A Pittsburgh neuropathologist found that the brain of Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagles player who committed suicide in November 2006 at age 44, showed significant concussion-related damage that played a role in the depression that Waters experienced before his death.

The NFL is responding to such concerns, developing safer protocols for the treatment of concussions. And advances in technology allow doctors to better track how a concussion is healing. Guidelines have been established to prevent a coach from making an athlete play against the advice of medical staff. The NFL has formed a research committee on concussions, but football is not the only sport facing the problem of head injuries. Boxers deal with these problems, as do, to a lesser extent, wrestlers and hockey players.

Although body contact is a nonnegotiable part of football, more needs to be done to keep players safe. The typical NFL athlete plays for only four years, and his career often ends because of injury. Although the helmet is designed to protect wearers from injury, in practice it can be a dangerous weapon. Even Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in order to protect the gladiators, outlawed iron blades and required that their sword points be dull.

When an injured football player does the thumbs-up gesture as he's taken off the field, he's doing a version of what the ancient crowds used to do to decide a gladiator's fate. Gladiators, too, had supporters and filled column inches. Some were slaves trying to purchase their freedom, but the majority were just looking for a way out of poverty. Like the gladiators, NFL players are rewarded with fame and money -- the contemporary equivalent of freedom -- but at what cost?

Wendy MacLeod, a writer from Arlington, is a playwright in residence at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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