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Bill Maxwell

A heavy price for toughness

In recent weeks, professional football and hockey, our most violent team sports, made groundbreaking announcements that go to core of their sports' identities: their toughness and manliness.

But make no mistake about it. Toughness and manliness are not exclusive to professional and college sports. Toughness and manliness have become cherished traits, even values, for many American boys.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent out a memo establishing guidelines on how teams should handle players with concussions. Those who get one concussion during a game, the memo advises, will not be allowed to return to the game and will be benched until they show no ill effects as determined by an independent neurologist.

This is a huge move for the NFL, which traditionally has tried to discredit science that links concussions to disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Since 1997, the National Hockey League has had a protocol for players returning to the game from concussions — the first such program in professional sports. In November, the league did something it always had resisted: It formed a committee to study the effects of "checks," those vicious hits that often result in concussions. The league also offered a recommendation for new rules to cut down on such hits.

Kicking and screaming, officials in both leagues had few rational choices other than to react affirmatively to mounting evidence that their sports' violence is producing a large population of men with crippling neurological disorders that destroy them and leave their families, especially their children, with irreplaceable personal loss.

Each week, several NFL players sustain concussions, some serious enough to do lasting harm. Here at home, for example, return man Clifton Smith of the Tampa Bay Bucs was placed on injured reserve, ending his 2009 season, after his second concussion since Oct. 8. Others sustaining concussions that took them out of action include standouts Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Clinton Portis of the Washington Redskins and Brian Westbrook of the Philadelphia Eagles.

But not all of the leagues' officials accept the prospect of bringing sensitivity, not to mention a modicum of safety, to their games. During the recent NHL Board of Governors meeting, the Anaheim Ducks' general manager, Bob Murray, cautioned against going soft: "You've got to be careful when you talk rule changes. Hitting is part of our game, and you don't want to change the fundamental nature of the game."

Most players in the heavy contact sports, including boxing, who sustain concussions, want to return to action immediately. Some even pretend they have not been dinged. To be relieved of play because of a concussion is unmanly, soft. Who wants to be one of Arnold's "girlie-men"?

The annals of sports are filled with exemplars of manliness and toughness. One of the most fearsome was hockey great Reggie Fleming, a defensemen and left wing, whose career spanned 12 full seasons in the NHL. Ironically, it was a test of Fleming's brain (he died in July at age 73) that showed the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurological degenerative disease, that persuaded officials to think twice.

Throughout his career, Fleming loved being known as a bruiser who battered opponents with bare knuckles. The New York Times reports that he spent so much time in Madison Square Garden penalty box that he joked, "I got my mail delivered there."

Pro football toughies, in no particular order, include Sam Huff, Don Meredith, Jack Youngblood, Bill Romanowski, Deacon Jones, WalterPayton, Jim Brown, Larry Csonka, Ray Lewis, Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus and, of course, Brett Favre, who, at age 40, is still described as "pickup truck-tough."

In the Minnesota Vikings' Dec. 21 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Favre's coach, Brad Childress, wanted to pull his field general out of the game, even though the Vikings were leading 7-6 in the third quarter. Favre was ineffective and taking a terrible beating from Minnesota's defense. He had been sacked four times.

About being asked to leave the game, Favre said: "No way being 7-6 and getting banged around a little bit would I consider coming out." By NFL standards and by the standards held by most American men and boys, Favre is The Man.

But what is the price for Favre and others like him? More important, perhaps, what price does the viewing male public — which worships such exhibitions of manliness and toughness — pay for this phenomenon?

As a father, grandfather, a former college football player, an assistant coach and a journalist, who covered many Pee Wee and Pop Warner football games, I worry about the impact the myth of manliness and toughness has on our boys.

I have covered countless games where fathers fought fathers in the stands because of a disputed call, where the test of manliness and toughness was winning. Unfortunately, many of the boys playing Pee Wee and Pop Warner football are sustaining concussions just like their hero tough guys.

What price will these kids pay?

A heavy price for toughness 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 4:39pm]

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