Thursday, October 29, 2009

Achilles' Choice--Athletics and Injury I & II

In the Iliad Achilles, the greatest of all Greek heroes, makes a choice offered by the gods--a long, quiet, productive life as King or a brief and glorious life as a warrior. Achilles chose a brief and glorious life. His song would be sung; his life remembered.

Modern athletes are offered the same choice, but the ethics of the choice is far more problematic. Athletes in most sports run a much higher risk of serious injury than a "normal" life. Worse, they risk long-term debilitation as their knees, ankles, hips, backs and necks give out in their thirties and forties. For many, old age strikes in early middle age.

The dangers of athletic endeavor come from the fundamental physicality of sport. Athletic achievement relies upon the body, upon the trained, disciplined and intent guided bodily action. The marvelous human body can be driven to incredible feats, and this is one of the glories of sports and athletic accomplishment. The human body, however, remains a mortal coil, a magnificent but brittle and fragile entity.

Athletics involves the disciplined application of force and constant practice and focus. The force reverberates back on the body. This occurs in violent sports like football but force reacts upon the body in "noncontact" sports like tennis, volleyball  or rowing. The impact of athletic actions accumulate through trauma and repetition. The trauma involves injury beyond normal force applied to the body. This covers collision and impact in football or soccer or distress inflicted upon an arm and elbow of a volleyball or tennis swing. The trauma can ripple through back, legs and torso in gymnastics or swimming. Endless and relentless repetition in practice and competition steel the body against the pain of the trauma but also compound the impact over years of action.

Injury signals the body to stop and heal itself. Pain is the body speaking to itself to warn of danger to the body's integrity. All humans learn to read and in some ways master pain. We could not survive without that capacity. But a trained athlete learns early, very early, that succeeding in athletics incurs levels hurt and pain entwined with the achievement and joy of playing and succeeding.

Immediate severe trauma to the body in some ways is the safest. It stops the body from performing and forces the athlete to stop. It even forces the coach to take the player out because the pain and injury limit the player's effectiveness. Leaving aside team doctors or trainers who will sometimes "shoot up" a player to dull the pain and enable them to play when the body tells them no, the true injury forces stopping and healing. Sometimes it ends a career, sometimes it demands months of rehabilitation to recover and return to the sport. Many athletes--amateur, elite, professional--have lived through multiple damage and injuries that accumulate. They learn to play with pain, not through pain. Often they come back from the injury to play more.

Athletics is a young person's domain. A few pros may make it to late thirties, but most end their careers long before that. The danger of injury seems far away to a twenty year old. It does not even exist for 6 year olds and seems irrelevant to 13 year olds.  Given the ages athletics starts for children, we rely upon parents and coaches to protect players from this trauma and make decisions to protect their health.

Young athletes know they are immortal. They play for the joy the game and of competing, satisfaction at experience of body and achievement, and pleasing their parents, coaches or teammates. They take risks, few sane adults would take, and consider them normal. They come back from injuries and broken bones and ACLs and hernias and hamstrings and concussions and keep playing.

Young athletes are resilient physically and emotionally. They can heal and come back; they often choose to. The immediate and large injuries are clear to them, but none of them sees or understands the long term and nagging injuries that will accompany them for the rest of their lives.  Parents understand but humans are not well designed cognitively to act upon such long term low probability outcomes. These probabilities do not play well with adults when facing the joy and longing of kids to play as well as parents own complicated relation to their children's athletic achievement.

We shouldn't ban children from playing sports. We shouldn't will ban all sports; the logic of trauma and repetition dog all athletic accomplishment. Athletes sort themselves over time as many drop out of competitive athletics or find play at levels appropriate to them. As they stay in the competitive track, the risks of long term impacts arise, but most of them seem manageable and the pay offs for the young athlete feel real and immediate.

We all live with choices with hidden long term costs we cannot envision even if we "know" they exist. Adults often make choices to pursue dangerous activities a person excels at or loves or both. But the defense fails when athletes are young; we rely upon adults--parents, guardians, coaches, doctors to protect and defend the athlete's future. The dilemma arises when the young athlete wants to play, even if the wanting is infused with parental pressure or desire to please authority figures or be with teammates.

The glory and joy of athletics lures young athletes; only parents and coaches stand between them and the accumulating costs of trauma and repetition.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus travels to Hades and meets the shades of great Greek heroes. In his encounter with Achilles, we hear Achilles' verdict on his own decision to choose a brief life of glory over a long life on earth. "I'd rather slave on earth for another man....than rule down here over all the breathless dead (Fitzgerald translation)." At what point does overcoming pain and injury become a journey to Hades for athletes?

People forget that Achilles died ignominiously shot by the coward Paris from behind. Pain and injury accompanies the physical demands and risks of success at sports. Overcoming them and competing and achieving reflects human spirit and courage. We praise an celebrate overcoming adversity in all aspects of life.

At one level playing sports involves a risk tradeoff  similar to other areas of life. People make decisions to devote energy to an activity because of satisfaction, achievement and goals. They give up other activities; they may fail and their efforts bear no fruit. They may succeed up to a point, and then give it up or pursue other activities. In many other areas of life the probabilities of succeeding at least at a professional level are much higher and the opportunities much greater. This accounts for the huge fall off in athletic participation as people grow older. But in America, college educations can be won with sports achievement and for a very few elect, they might have brief careers as professional players, but most of even the best will be finished by the age of 27.

The numbers of people actually affected by sports trauma narrows to a very very small band of people by the time most of them are 18 and to a miniscule by the time they are 23. Fewer than 400 play professional basketball; in the entire history of baseball there have been fewer than 17,000 players. But the way to get there is littered with injuries and cumulative traumas from repetition. An epidemic of knee injuries plagues youth soccer and basketball especially for young women. The body of a twenty-five year-old gymnist evinces the wear and tear of a 40 year old. Many high school and club players have struggled with pain, injury and damage. Most elite college athletes deal with some significant damage. We just don't know the long-term cumulative impact for most of these sports; linear clarity of impact upon their later health is not always clear. Doctors, however,  know enough to be able to warn athletes of the long-term impact of arthritis or debilitating injuries or repeated attempts to come back from injuries. At this point the role of doctors and parents becomes critical to ensure decisions to continue on are informed and made rather than simply taken for granted.

Unfortunately what modern sport gives athletes is glory, if they are good enough, and a long life full of debilitating injury. A recent NFL study suggests that football players who have suffered number of concussions potentially have a much higher chance of suffering early dementia. This data  meshes with compelling studies by the U. S. military of the cumulative impact of IED explosions on soldiers in Iraq. Proposed rules of engagement limit exposures to three and prohibit soldiers from returning to combat. Football and other sports have not reached such conclusions.

The cumulative impact on cognitive functioning differs in a profound way from the cumulative impact upon bodies. Individuals can adapt to physical injury and limits. Most people maintain their own character intact as they grapple with physical injury. But brain trauma from cumulative impacts erode the core personality and cognitive functions. The way the brain works changes, personality changes, people become shadows of themselves, they arrive at Achilles fate.

But athletes, especially young athletes, did not make a bargain with gods. They play for love, joy and accomplishment. They play for the experience of being with other  athletes. They play for their parents and coaches. A few play for dreams of being a professional. At some point, they grow into adults and make their own bargain with the game and their fate. But as youth, they depend upon others to protect them from the shades and shadow world that could await them. The more we learn, the more we need to be alert to protect the young athletes from the permanent injury to their soul that can await them.

What does it mean for people like me who enjoy and admire athletes and athletic competition? What does it mean to pay money and enjoy athletic contests that can be slowly sapping not just the body but the mind of the players? I have not been able to watch boxing for years. Over 28 percent of boxers suffer serious cognitive disability. I can remember the beauty and glory of Mohammed Ali. I recoil with physical and spiritual dismay when I see what his sport has done to his body and mind. We will not outlaw football; we will not find technical solutions to the mounting hidden epidemic. I honestly do not know how to react to this knowledge. How can I revel in the next explosive hit or block, knowing that each hit, each smash contributes to the loss of a mind?

Modern athletic glory is fleeting. Modern athletes are fungible marketing commodities. Even the greatest gain their momentary glory and their treasure, but they gain not eternal glory but a long life after the glory, a life of slow loss and suffering. This may be a deal for adults, but not for children.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A League of Their Own--A Review

"There's no crying in baseball!"  Jimmy Dugan yells at one of his players in the iconic movie A League of Their Own. A failed major leaguer, Dugan played by Tom Hanks has just dressed down a player who stands isolated and crying--fairly typical male bluster facing female sensitivity? But the player recovers and  Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Baseball League win the game and  go on to the world series of girl's baseball in 1943.

I have lousy taste in movies, at least my children think so. But I have always loved sports movies and they remain a consistent vehicle through which Americans establish and explore our moral and  cultural stories, challenges, battles, failures and successes. They reflect the aspirations, realities and possibilities of our culture refracted through our most enduring metaphors of individals and teams, challenge and competition, victory and defeat. The dynamic of team and individual, of talent and effort, of outsider versus insider lies at the heart of America's own cultural contradictions. Sports stories provide a fallow and safe field to harvest the change. Periodically  I'm will review sports movies I like and believe illustrate the morals and culture of America in their story.

A League of their Own chronicles the beginnings the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Baseball league which existed for three years during World War II when men's professional baseball was shut down by the war and the draft.  In the movie two sisters from Wilamette Oregon join the league. Through the course of the season they help the team and league build an intense following. The team overcomes the jeers, skepticism and catcalls of the "fans." They build a brand of baseball that is competent and enjoyable to watch.

The movie highlights the rural home of most of the players as well as the demand to have the women sequestered by a den mother.  Each player gets beauty lessons to appear their best in their short skirted uniforms (obviously not designed with sliding in mind). At the same time the lure of marriage or domestic life stalks each layer especially the star player Dottie (Geena Davis). At the end of the movie the team makes it to the "world series" of the women's teams. Dottie's younger sister and rival, Kit (Lorrie Petty) comes to bat for the Racine Belles and rips a game wining hit to win the first league championship. Kit had battled the entire time to move beyond Dottie's shadow and her intense rivalry had broken the sister bond. Kit had been traded to the Racine Bells when the rivalry started to fracture the team. Dottie says, "it's part of the game." The movie is framed by Dottie leaving her house and grandchildren to go to Cooperstown for a Hall of Fame exhibit celebrating the the league and the women's pioneering roles.

Many women who play and follow modern sports regard the movie as ionic. It captures the rarity and difficulty of playing in the shadow of men's professional sport. The derision and distrust of the ability of "girls" to demonstrated athletic excellence saturates the screen and the players. Yet the players earn the respect of fans but also the grudging respect of ex-major league manager played. It does not falsify the opposition and the sexual based marketing of the league. The women wear short skirts and have makeovers to make them more marketable. One player is initially rejected because she is not attractive enough.  For many of the women this is their way out. Finally the movie etches all too clearly the sequesterd double standard where the women have to be chaperoned and protected while marketed for their sexual allure. The movie hits home the never ending tension and theme of whether a woman of talent and excellence in sports or any field must give that up to be a wife and mother. The best player Dottie Hansen chooses that option as does the best hitter. For Dottie it truly remained just a game she could never take quite seriously her talent and skill compared to her true task of building a home.

The players are the sports  equivalent of Rosie the Riveter. The exodus of males during the war opened up the need for women in many areas of society where they would be denied or persecuted before. The window closed, and in the fifties many worked hard to expunge the memory and possiblity that women could do a "man's job." The movie reminds us that athletic excellence is not gender bound, despite what American society might prefer. It reminds us that once upon a time windows opened by war and disaster and into that window women not only stepped to run the economy, but to provide comeptitive sport. They seem odd or misfits, and the best may choose to return to the farm when her husband returns from the war, but the fact remains. The movie ennobles it in fiction and now the Hall of Fame enshrines it in memory.

The movie revives a dream, a memory, a possibility from which emerged a reality. When I watched ESPN televise the entire NCAA Women's Softball tournament, I watched skill, excellence and achievement born in the dreams of the Rockford Peaches.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Athletics, Race and Limbaugh

The internal NFL opposition to Rush Limbaugh as a  potential owner of the St. Louis  franchise was a good thing. The fact that the bidding group dropped him was even better. It represents one more chapter in the long history where America plays out its cultural and moral issues through sports.

Sports can nudge and push the moral dimensions of American race relations. All sports teams have histories of reactionary owners. In one of sports' finest moments, however,  Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a contract to play professional baseball. Together they plotted to  break the color line in America's most popular pastime. The brutal and heroic journey of Robinson generated immense uproar, confusion and  cultural progress. American sports has never been the same. This is the way owners should act. To have accepted Limbaugh's would have dishonored the NFL and the pathfinding role sports can sometimes play in the culture wars.

Limbaugh expounds an especially dangerous rhetoric for American sports and race relations. He attacked with a double-edged sword. If black males do succeed at exceptionally high rates in sports, he insinuates that this is where they belong in a world of physical intelligence and violence and force. When he carps that the African-American players can't really play the "smart" positions, he reinforces this insidious approach. On the other hand, if they do not earn this by "merit," then their preponderance represents one more episode of discrimination against beleagured whites. Either way he intimates African Americans do not really belong in mainstream American middle class or professional society. He turns the victory of talent and persistence into a social cage.

Many American ideals and myths around race and difference play out in sport. The core of the ideal is the vision that players of different ethnicities and races can meet together in common respect for talent and achievement. As a team they unite their talents around a common cause of action. It's the same ideal and myth that makes the military so central to integration and the American racial fault lines.

Because many Americans invest identity and morality in their sports competition excluding black players was central to cultural notions of white superiority. College basketball and football exemplified it in coaches like Adoph Rupp at Kentucky and Bear Bryant at Alabama.  Ultimately it was not moral suasion but competitive disadvantage that lead coaches like Bryant to change and recruit black athletes. But the competitive pressure could not exist unless owners and leaders permitted players to play.

Today the ideal and the myths are alive and frayed. The fraying occurs from the preponderance of extraordinarily successful and talented black athletes in professional football and baseball. The talent represents the triumph of a great experiment in integration, an extremely transparent meritocracy, where talent almost always wins out since it is tied to winning which is tied to money.    This is America after all. Money drives action. The battle continues at the level of coaches and ownership. It was the opted self-adopted NFL Rooney rule that forced owners to interview African American candidates for coaching positions. In  football instant, the rule transformed the knowledge and hiring profiles of owners.

More interesting the NFL Players Union voiced their opposition to Limbaugh's bid. Successful black players often remain apolitical to protect their marketability. Teams encourage this to preserve their ability  to attract fans regardless of affiliation. In fact, sport affiliation is one those crucial American identities that can cut across political affiliation. The Limbaugh case broke that reluctance.

But the opposition of owners and voice of the union represented the right voice and the right step. But the battle to live up to ideals is far from won. The ambiguous  role of sports as a surrogate for American morality dramas continues.

(Pictures courtesy of: Library of Congress; synstuff)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ken Griffey, Jr. & the Importance of Team Culture

117 Games 387 AB 83 Hits 19 HR 214 BA 324 OBP

Not a great stat line. A quantitative analyst would predict this player was a total bust and should be replaced. Seattle columnist Art Thiel would call these "stats without meaning." This line represents Ken Griffey, Jr. who made incalculable contributions rebuilding the performance culture of the Seattle Mariners. This year the team made one of the ten biggest turn arounds in major league history going from 101 losses to 86 wins. Griffey her relentless worked to rebuild a culture of support, professionalism and fun that enabled a young and largely untested team to achieve this milestone.

By stats analysts, all players are fungible, and it makes no sense to keep an underperforming statistical player in the line up. You should replace the player with a cheaper but higher producing player. Like most pure statistical analysis of players and teams or any institution, the statistical analysis misses vital qualitative categories of leadership but above all of culture.

Culture captures the beliefs and norms and interpersonal relations on a team. Culture expresses the trust, respect and support (or lack thereof) that a group of athletes demonstrates in their daily action. Culture captures the peer pressure and sanctions and motivations that flow from the role models of elders and the degree to which authority of coaches is heeded. Group norms mean players learn from each other either good or bad habits and responses. Rookie Mariner's Coach Don Wakamatsu calls it a "belief system."

Last year the Seattle Mariners collapsed in a maelstrom of recrimination, incompetence, underperformance. In the end the players quit; packing boxes sat before lockers a week before the end of the season. The best player Ichiro was vilified in the press and attacked anonymously by team members. No one chided or lead the younger players, and budding superstars like Felix Hernandez stuttered in their growth. They lost 101 games and left with barely a word to each other.

This year the Mariners turned in one of the top ten turn arounds in baseball history by winning 85 games. The last game ended with players hugging each other, markching around SAFECO field throwing out gifts and players impromptu hoisting Griffey and Ichiro on their shoulders. This was not a penant win, this was the end of a third place season. You don't see this type of loyalty from fans often these days. You almost never see this joy and community from profesional players.

Ken Griffey, Jr. stood at the center of this renewal.. The greatest player in Mariner's and perhaps Seattle history. He returned to the city of his professional genesis and greatest years. A city he gave his knees to on the cement field at the Kingdom. A city where he hit over 400 home runs and electrified people with his catches and passion for the game. A city that embraced this complex and interesting and joyous warrior. '

Griffey provided something much more important and interesting that helped rebuild the club, he worked relentlessly to help instill the "belief system" in players. Talent is not enough, neither is money. A dysfunctional culture can destroy teams--the Yankees proved it for years.

Culture take work. Managers can't do it alone. A few players who have respect and authority have to work hard to set informal standards, teach new team members, push people to perform and help others out of their slumps. Griffey performed this for the Mariners. He also took the media spotlight off of Ichiro who is not personally designed as a leader or one who can carry the emotional tenor of a team.

It was a great ending for a complex career. I'd like to see it end this way--Griffey still a hero with a unique and beautiful swing on the shoulders of his teammates with tears in his eyes. They celebrated his last accomplishment, not home runs or spectacular catches, but helping lead and create a winning culture on a losing team. This is the way to end.

(Picture courtesy of Seattle Times)

Friday, October 9, 2009

A President's Responsiblity-- the SUNY Binghamton Mess

President Lois DeFleur made a devils gamble. She lost. Now everyone is losing but her. The entire ethical culture of college sports rests upon strong Presidential accountability and she embodies the exact opposite

It's the devils' bargain for a college. You're a good university but unknown, unloved and looking for visibility. The route in America? Not Noble prizes, not higher SATs and GPAs, but college sports. SUNY Binghamton is fine bucolic standout of the SUNY system, but it wasn't enough. President Lois DeFleur wanted more. As the picture demonstrates, she wants money for her campus. But she wanted more. Ignoring a faculty vote, the President moved the program to NCAA Division 1 and set out to build a winner.

The cheapest and best way to accomplish this is through college basketball (except for the South and Texas where only a football matters). 12 kids, actually 8 good ones, an aggressive coach and chance to make it to the big dance, the NCAA month long party and constant mentioning on ABC and ESPN. If it works, you get money for appearing, more visibility and higher enrollments. Gonzaga, a small decent Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington (where was that again, Spokane, I said) parlayed its teams into national notoriety. SUNY succumbed to the same siren.

You can do it right or you can do it quick. Gonzaga built up the program over two decades; SUNY did it in four years. The President and her athletic director Joe Thiro hired Kevin Broadhus a Gerry Tarkenian type coach who specialized in taking cast offs and second second chance guys.

College sports' own devil's bargain in all revenue sports is the recruitment of under prepared young men, mainly minorities from socially disorganized backgrounds, and using them to populate their football and basketball teams. The only way the system works and avoids exploitation is if the colleges invest immense effort in recruiting for character and work ethic that can help the young man navigate an educational system. They also need decent academic support to give them a chance. Without both, the system becomes exploitation and falls apart.

The Binghamton coach brought in a range of young men who needed second chances, not academic chances, but character chances. When the Faculty Athletic Representative fought the admissions, the President replaced him. When faculty remembers complained about harassment from the Coach and Athletic Director, the President ignored them. When athletes piled up arrests for assault, cocaine dealing or stealing, the President and athletic Director ignored it. After all, the team, known made it to the NCAA tournament by winning the designed for the NCAA tournament America East conference.

Now the program has imploded with scandals. The players were not supported or lead as students. The President permitted them to exist only as unregulated athletes. As misdemeanors, arrests and harassment piled up, neither she, the coach nor the Athletic director acted. Now six players have been dismissed. The AD has been thrown to the wolves (actually reassigned to the Provost's office). More is coming, but she remains unscathed. This ignores the real issue--she sponsored and abetted a program in violation of academic standards and the integrity of the university. In modern NCAA ethical standards, the President is directly held responsible for the programs.

There may be no NCAA violations but this epitomizes what the NCAA calls loss of institutional control. In this case, however, there was none to begin with. The President launched the program without the necessary academic support and safeguards and ignored all the warning signs. She wanted a winner, she wanted visibility. Well she got the winner and the visibility along with disgrace and embarrassment. She should resign.