Sports fans love a close game or a bitter rivalry. They want to see competition and extraordinary effort. But no one wants to see athletes get hurt, right?
Wrong. Hockey fans are notorious for cheering louder when players punch each other than when they score goals. Now even the relatively low-contact sport of baseball is bringing violence junkies out of the woodwork.
The spark for the latest debate over how much protection professional athletes should have from injury is a push by Major League Baseball (MLB) to reduce the number of collisions between catchers and base-runners at home plate. That sounds like something everyone could get behind, yet 61% of voters in an ESPN.com poll are “not OK with” the reforms MLB is considering. ESPN.com laid out some of the potential new rules:
• Catchers will not be allowed to block home plate.
• Runners will not be permitted to target the catchers.
• The question of whether or not the plate was blocked or the runner targeted the catcher will be reviewable, with an immediate remedy available to the umpires.
• Catchers or runners who violate the new rules will be subject to disciplinary action.
I don’t follow baseball, so perhaps it doesn’t mean much that I don’t see the big deal about these changes, but it seems to be a big deal for people like Pete Rose. He told the L.A. Times derisively that the hitters already “wear more armor than the Humvees in Afghanistan,” and worried, “What’s the game coming to?”
The National Football League (NFL) is on the same side of the fence. It has been dealing with (or dodging) the problem of players’ injuries for quite a while, even settling a lawsuit by former players for $765 million. That number is high because the head injuries football players suffer during games are grievous and have clear scientific evidence showing the link between the injuries and the consequences. Multiple hits to the head can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can bring with it dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and suicide.
To appear that it is doing something to fix the problem, the NFL allocated $10 million of the settlement to experiments that bash in the heads of dogs and other animals to no useful purpose. The payments notwithstanding, the league’s official line is that hitting your head over and over doesn’t cause lasting damage, as s.e. smith reported on Care2 Causes. Smith explains why the NFL refuses to take some obvious steps to protect players:
[F]ans have a very firmly conceived notion of what football should look like and how it should be played. Moves to make it safer, like limiting legal tackles, changing helmet design and thoroughly assessing athletes after head injuries and before their return to play, could incite backlash from fans.
ESPN’s poll about baseball rules confirms smith’s diagnosis, with the majority of fans opposing safety.
Selfish, sadistic fans or no, the MLB seems to be serious about safety. The L.A. Times reports that the only question about the reforms is when they will take effect. If the players’ association agrees, that could happen next season. If they don’t, it could happen the following year.
Sports commentator Tom Verducci articulated the very basic morality that MLB is exhibiting here.
Think about it: if you were inventing the game of baseball today, would you allow a guy to be barreling down [a catcher]? A 250-pound guy, 220-pound guy running around full-speed into a catcher who is just, let’s face it, he’s a defenseless receiver equivalent in the NFL. Why would you allow it?
Baseball won’t allow it much longer. If only the NFL viewed things this clearly.