The Sacrifices of Sport

A717339_61226081 couple of weeks ago PBS: Frontline released a documentary entitled League of Denial: The NFL Concussion Crisis that chronicled the controversy surrounding concussion research and its potential impact on the game of football.  The documentary exposed the NFL’s decade long negligence around concussions and put into question the safety of a billion dollar industry.  The NFL has spent millions on trying to reduce the impact of this on the general public and spent hundreds of millions on lawsuits from former players wanting compensation for damages suffered.  Amidst the off the field firestorm however, the actual game of football continued without a hitch.  Outside of a couple of tweets from current players questioning the integrity of the NFL brass there seemed to be little interest in the findings from former or current players.  What we have seen and heard is that even if the head trauma suffered results in long term damage for players they are willing to take the risk.

This shouldn’t surprise you if you have ever been an athlete because one of the early lessons learned in sports is to tune out anything that could hinder your ability to perform.  I wrote about this on an entry called “Superman”,  The further up the competitive stream you go the more you will find individuals who are willing to do almost whatever it takes to tune out their fears.  If they paid attention to the risks they would never be able to reach the heights needed.  Some players are more aware of this than others, but all players must tell themselves that their worst fears (whatever it may be) won’t happen.  This is how an athlete survives the abuse of a sport…at any level.

Do athletes cognitively understand there might be consequences to playing?  Yes.  Will that stop them from playing?  No.  If it could have it would have stopped them a long time ago when their bodies were asked, for the first time, to perform in ways that brought them close to the fragileness of their humanity.  Similar to a soldier in war, anything that keeps an athlete from completing their mission must be sacrificed…or conditioned out.  So whether we are talking about head injuries, career-ending knee injuries, neck injuries, or even death, rest assured that an athlete will rarely if ever heed these warnings of danger.  To do so they will have to engage in a much more difficult and grievous war against the voices of influence that have told them to numb and ignore their pain.  They will have to eventually question why nobody intervened on their behalf the first time they had a concussion and were told to get back on the field.  They will have to question why those who were entrusted to protect them from harm did not speak up against abuse at the hands of a trainer or coach.  People learn to question because they have been allowed to.  People have freedom to say no as adults because they had the freedom to say no as a child.  To expect a player to quit playing for safety reasons is ridiculous in this context.  My question is however, what responsibility do those in power (parents, teachers, coaches, organizations) have to these players who have been mentally conditioned to ignore what will later impact them?

I came across a commentary of a grandfather who had watched the troubling documentary on football and concussions and his response was telling in this regard.  “I love my grandchildren and all four of them play football.  I am really upset and worried that if I don’t say something to their parents, they’ll suffer.”   This response is quite interesting is it not?  It is almost like there is something in the heart of this man that is causing him to question his desire to speak up and protect his grandchildren.  I have to wonder why.  Why would he struggle to name this?  What forces are against him?  It seems that whatever they are, they must also be competing at the heart of a league that has tried to ignore this issue for decades.  Sadly, this silence marks the lives of many athletes very early on.  The people who have power and responsibility to protect life keep silent at the hands of unknown forces for some known or unknown reason.

Simultaneously, what is confusing about advocating for player health is that I would imagine very few athletes appreciate these voices of protection now that they are grown.  The negative responses by players to new rules and regulations around safety seems to indicate this quite well.  Whenever there is a safety concern addressed by the league and reflected in the rules you end up hearing more frustration from players than appreciation.  Why would someone react negatively to something or someone trying to protect their health?  What could be worse than the devastating effects of a degenerative brain disease?  There is obviously something also in the heart of many athletes that is at war and causing them to silence those advocating for their physical health.

A professor of mine once said “mental pain is always worse than physical pain.”  There is something in this that opens a window into the lives of athletes and the rest of humanity.  I would argue that  there is something much more painful about losing a sense of who we are than there is about suffering physical harm.  These defining characteristics hold so much power because they often name our worth.  People will do whatever it takes to hold onto what gives them worth.  If being an athlete is the defining characteristic of your life, any event or reality that calls this identity into question will be countered with every bit of energy available.  Athletes don’t risk their lives and health for a game…they risk it because they believe being an athlete is what makes them worthy to be loved.

There is a huge bind here.  If one chooses to pursue competitive athletics they will be asked with each increasing level of competition to numb and disavow parts of themselves meant to thrive and speak.  They will have to be willing to sacrifice their mental and physical health for the god of athletic success.  It seems that this is the cost required to make it in sports, and the lessons learned in these trenches will keep you alive on the battlefield.  In a strange turn of events, it is the abuse and trauma that makes an athlete able to withstand the conditions on an unforgiving business.  And it is their longing for worth and purpose that keeps them from saying that they would have it any other way.


An Intro to Concussions

It has been quite an interesting few weeks in the world of sports. It seems the more I turned my focus towards investigating the impact of this world on its participants the more I have noticed just how much is boiling underneath its’ surface undiscovered. For reasons nobody is ready to confess, the world of sports has been vastly unexplored and tragically un-critiqued. Few examples are more evident than the recent headlines exposing the impact of sports related concussions. PBS Frontline released a documentary detailing the impact of concussions on athletes called League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. Headlines have been alive with commentary on this issue and the question of whether or not playing football can have long term health consequences on participants. The NFL is working hard to downplay this latter question, but the answer is unquestionably YES. As is the case with most culture challenging inquiries, it often takes the “hard” sciences years longer to discover what the “soft” sciences have theorized about for years. Fortunately for those of us in the mental health field, the body has a way of communicating the “mysteries” of the mind in data that nobody can ignore.

When I first heard news of the documentary and its’ implications on the game of football I was filled with competing emotions. One part of me was relieved that this information was being released to the general public and that the NFL’s powers that attempted to hide this information from players and the public could no longer do so. On the other hand I was terrified. I love watching football. Heck I even get together with a bunch of guys every Sunday and play tackle football with no pads! I felt sick to my stomach even thinking about not being able to watch my Auburn Tigers on Saturdays in the fall. So was it hard for me to imagine why people are not just afraid of this but maybe even angry at anyone who is pushing the conversation? That answer is No. I would expect this reaction from anyone who loves the game. I can understand this reaction from anyone who is seeing something very important to them begin to slip away. We are seeing the grieving process on a massive scale…and we all know that the first step is denial. With every new study we see more clearly that there is something toxic to what we are playing, coaching, and cheering. There is a price to pay for anyone who longs for glory and fame.

308201_7286One of the reasons I began pursuing this work with and for the mental health of athletes was birthed out of this research on concussions and its linkage to the struggles and deaths of several current and former players. It was Junior Seau’s death in particular, and the firestorm of concussion related news that followed, that made me wonder about what else contributed to the decline of such a beloved figure in sports. At the time, my understanding of concussions, CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), and their effects on the health of a person was fairly limited. I had little knowledge of what neurologically was happening to sufferers of CTE and was unaware of what such a brain disease would expedite. At the time I simply found an interest in the fact that someone was finally talking about the dark side of sports and I knew that there was more to the story than just CTE. The repetitive brain injuries incurred in sports like football or boxing can impair and destroy extremely important parts of our brains. Brain trauma deeply effects mental health. However, this is not the only thing happening in athletes that cause their decline.

To get a glimpse of what many athletes are facing, I’ll just include some baseline realities that come with pursuing this dream. There are the effects of years of psychological and emotional abuse, years of having to use pain killers or other substances to ease chronic pain (not everyone but many), the anxiety that accompanies the pressure of performance, and the deep confusion and shame each athlete suffers as they try to come to terms with losing a core sense of identity. I do not know an athlete who has not had to deal with every single one of these listed above…and these psychological, emotional, and physical abuses are just the tip of the iceberg if you look at the spectrum of experiences that come with pursuing competitive sports. But through relationship, particularly through the process of psychotherapy and counseling, an athlete can begin to move towards awareness and healing. What is most troubling about the effects of TBI/concussions/CTE is that it seems to impair the parts of our brain that allow for this other healing to take place. So what you have are a bunch of athletes who have been through an intense amount of trauma and abuse; experiences and effects not unlike what veterans experience after fighting in battle. These alone (and there is much more than just this trauma to deal with) could send any person into depression, mania, and/or crisis, but with CTE a person will find these issues more severe and unavoidable in everyday life. So these players find themselves angrier, more confused, more disconnected in relationship, and less able to deal with the impending storm of losing their identity as an athlete and celebrity.

Over the next few weeks I am going to be looking at several aspects of this discussion on concussions and CTE. The Sporting Psyche will take a look at the effects of Traumatic Brain Injury on our ability to express and mediate our emotions, empathize with others, and be able to change (the ability to be flexible in our identity). I’m also going to take a look at the interesting and telling reactions of NFL players who are now learning about the consequences of sports on their health.
Stay tuned…



Photo of 2014 football recruit Jalen Tabor, first published on theblcblog.com

Photo of 2014 football recruit Jalen Tabor, first published on theblcblog.com

I watched the new Superman movie with my wife a couple of weeks ago at our local discount theatre.  I am a more of an Iron Man guy myself, but thought it would be a fun movie to see on the big screen.  Unfortunately, the movie lost my interest pretty quickly after it became obvious that both Superman and the arch-villain were invincible.  Bullets, missiles, fires, lasers, falling debri, and, literally everything else that someone could concoct to kill a man was rendered useless.  Their “Superness” was on another level and the laws that limited the rest of humanity did not apply.  Neither hero or villain had any concern or fear of danger because their strength and superhuman abilities could always overcome…even death apparently.  This dynamic made for a pretty boring story for all us normal humans sitting in the audience.  Without the danger of death, a reality that is common to every normal person, the beauty and triumph of the story was lost on us.  We couldn’t relate.  At best we could only wish that we were “Super” too, living in a reality where the laws of this world didn’t apply.

When it comes to most elite athletes there is a something of this “superhumanness” that is the lifeblood of each athlete’s identity.  No obstacle is too big, no problem is too difficult, no injury too severe.  What limits and humbles the rest of the human race doesn’t apply to these elite men and women, a belief that most take deep pride in.  Interestingly enough, there has been some research done on the characteristics of an athletes personality and one of the markers that distinguishes athletes from non-athletes is an increase in resilience.  An athlete can often mentally and physically overcome quit a deal more in comparison to most non-athletes.  I would hypothesize that this is a trait that is born out of the physical and mental conditioning that comes with the territory of elite competition.  An athlete must learn to overcome obstacles, limitations, and even abuse(s) if they intend on reaching an elite level.  If they don’t, they will eventually fall by the wayside because in the current world of sports the aforementioned realities are just the name of the game.  Somewhere in this process athletes must block out any reservation or worry and begin to believe that they can and will be able to rise above the rest.  At some point the mantra, “do whatever it takes” becomes a mandate to continue pushing.


I’ve been reading a memoir by Tim Green, a former NFL lineman that has been especially intriguing as to the natural consequences of this mentality in the world of sports.  He actually believes that the pursuit of this image, for an athlete eventually encourages steroid use, drug abuse, and a dismissal of health risks in order to delay decline and limitation. In one chapter he talks about how the act of “taking the needle” (a medical treatment that allows athletes to disregard immense pain and further injury in order to keep playing) is considered a mark of honor and admiration in the NFL.  He says, “[taking the needle] demonstrates the complete disregard for one’s well being that is admired in the NFL (Green, p. 125).” On the one hand it has been this superhuman belief that has allowed mere mortals to get to the pinnacle of athletics, but simultaneously it is this same belief that leads athletes to abuse themselves as they try to delay what is inevitable.  Green points out that without this invincible belief one could never face the dark realities of football.  He also points out that by the time a player has to look their humanity in the face they are so attached to this superhuman identity that they would often rather die than accept their own defeat. 

To be sure, there has, and will never be, an athlete that can defeat the shriveling effects of death.  But the call of fame and fortune, or maybe more deeply the desire to hold onto one’s identity, for an athlete can cause even the most sane man to make a deal with the devil.  This plays out in the most simple of ways.  A fringe linebacker smacks his head against another helmet jarring his brain to a swell and causing what is called a concussion.  Although having a wealth of information and new rules on his side protecting him from endangering himself and his swelling brain, the athlete lies to team doctors about his condition for fear of being given a moniker of “injury prone” or “damaged goods”.  He runs back out on the field…because he is invincible.  He won’t be stopped by a traumatic brain injury.  After all, when one is pumped full of all kinds of different numbing agents and armed with a Superhero Costume of sorts it becomes quite easy to believe in invincibility.  Unfortunately there is always a price to pay when trying to play God.  Our mortality will not be disregarded regardless of what we believe in our mind.  One way or another we are all humbled and reminded of our limitations.  But this hard reality won’t stop the next person from trying.  Every time a superhero costume is retired there is always another hungry soul to pick it up.  We all want to be Superman.