Injuries are an inevitable weigh station on the road to sporting excellence. Just this past weekend the world of CrossFit was rocked by the news that Kevin Ogar, a CrossFit coach from Englewood, Colorado, had severed his spine while performing a powerlift at a competition in California. And of course these days football is nothing if not an outer waiting room for various orthopedic surgeons and increasingly, neurologists and medical examiners.
Running has its overuse injuries, for sure, but football has car wrecks.
On their first possession in last Sunday’s NFC Divisional round playoff game against the hometown Carolina Panthers, 49er QB Colin Kapernick threw an outlet pass into the right flat to his 6’4”, 293 pound running back Will Tukuafu. Closing from his cornerback position came 5’11”, 195 pound Captain Munnerlyn.
Knowing he didn’t have the size or strength to take on the much larger Tukuafu straight up, Munnerlyn instead acted as would a predatory cat. Grabbing Tukuafu up top by the jersey he then swung his body forward onto a horizontal plane, like a pole vaulter initiating his inversion, but in essence using the dragging force of his now off-center weight to bulldog the larger man to the ground. This increasingly common tackling technique added Munnerlyn’s 195 pounds to Tukuafu’s already large mass as he took his next step.
As a consequence Tukuafu’s left knee buckled inward, unable to withstand the added force, while his ankle got pinned beneath Munnerlyn’s ground-bound weight. It was Tukuafu first NFL catch; lucky it wasn’t his last.
This bulldogging technique is cousin to the so-called horse-collar tackle, which is illegal due to its potential for serious back injury. However, bulldogging is given no such penalty other than to the receiver’s lower extremities.
In watching these games it is evident that the NFL is ambivalent about the violence which has spurred such attraction to its game, even as it threatens its future. While TV ratings are sky high — and just imagine the numbers this weekend when Tom Brady and Peyton Manning go after the AFC Championship in Denver in their 15th career match up – the seed bed for the game’s future is simultaneously being eroded as parents question letting their kids play Pop Warner Football for fear of the injuries that come with the game.
Increasingly, as the NFL tries to reduce the serious head trauma that has plagued the league — by limiting the spearing tackles of old — we are seeing one type of serious injury being replaced by others, much like how running trades one kind of injury when athletes wear minimalist shoes for others when they wear overly cushioned shoes.
What is the solution? With increased salaries, lack of full drug testing, attention of rabid fan bases, and the spotlight of ESPN SportsCenter highlights, the drive toward increased violence has only been reinforced, even as the attempt to stem that violence continues to result in crazy penalty calls that influence the outcome of games, at times much more than do the players. Is it any surprise that sports like lacrosse and soccer have grown in recent times? Why can’t track and running get some of the football run-off? We have plenty of opportunities for big men in the field.
Running has been likened to religion in the passion of its believers and adherents. But name anything that you don’t try to improve upon or learn from after first blush. Looking back, consider which of the “rules of society” first pronounced in the Bible are still adhered to today, such warrants as were given slavery, genocide, and stoning? Or, consider the cosmological assumptions of the first century A.D., earth as the center of the universe? No, we learn as we go, grow, though hopefully with humility and doubt.
In the same sense that the Bible was our first attempt to codify social ordering, cosmology and medicine, so was track & field one of man’s first conceptions of organized sport. But over time the organization of running, jumping, and throwing has evolved, giving us games that include all the skill sets of track & field, but in more accessible presentations. Thus, unless the stakes in track & field and running can be identified as having real import, similar to that of other, more modern sports, track and running will continue to be shunted to the backwaters of public interest as have been the Biblical warrants of ancient times.
Over the last generation the sport has attempted to market itself via the record books rather than by building personality-driven competitions. But the record books today are a goof, which nobody takes seriously. So trying to market the sport via time is self-defeating.
And even when a real opportunity presents itself to showcase a meaningful, highly anticipated racing match-up, we see it go wasted. Whether Coe vs. Ovett in the late 1970s, or Dibaba vs. Defar today, how often, outside the Olympics, do the best compete against the best? Just this week we learned that Ethiopia’s Keninisa Bekele has opted to make his marathon debut in Paris on April 6th, rather than line up against fellow Olympic track champion and marathon debutant Mo Farah of England in London one week later. With the rest of the field gathered in London, Mo vs. Kenny might have been the fizz in the cider that tipped the race into pay-per-view status. But we’ll not see it.
Track once filled Madison Square Garden with 19,000 fans and the Boston Garden with 14,000. Today, the sport fills the N.Y Armory and the Reggie Lewis Center with about 4000 each. Those thousands are the bubble audience, the truly passionate fans. What we’ve lost is the casual fans the sport once could attract, but no longer does. The sport seems organized like the educational system in the USA before Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, separate but equal as the guiding principle. Didn’t work then, doesn’t work now.
Maybe only my old broadcasting partner Ed Eyestone will appreciate this next, as Ed has performed in musical theater in recent years back home in Utah. I was watching a documentary recently about the legendary Broadway writing team of Rodgers and Hammerstein – who penned such classics as Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. During the documentary I was caught by something Dick Rodgers said regarding the process by which a Broadway show is produced.
“The easy approach to this,” he began, “is to say, ‘Luck. Oscar handed him a lyric and out came the tune, five minutes.’ Well, the tune didn’t come in five minutes. We’d gone through months of discussion, agreed on time signatures and structure, so one song would fit in with the one before and the song after. These things condition the actual composition.
“You carry this around with you, subconsciously and consciously, for a great length of time. And eventually you reach the moment of composition, and it comes in a rush.”
If we look at Rodgers & Hammerstein as athlete and coach, and replace the word ‘Tune’ with ‘Race’ and ‘Song’ with “Training session’, we have the exact process by which a runner prepares to perform. I guess there is more to a “Long Run on Broadway” than I previously was aware.
Can I get an ‘Amen’!
(With the weather being warm and dry in Denver this weekend, I’ve got Manning and the Broncos over Tom and Pats, 31-28.)