Wednesday, 7 September 2011

What Price Glory?

It’s the afternoon of November 23rd 1984 and I’m sitting in a room in the Fort Worth Hilton. I’ll come back to how I came to be there at that particular moment, but for now let’s keep our attention on the television in the corner, because there’s a big college football game on – the University of Miami is playing Boston College and two spectacular quarterbacks are putting on one hell of a show.

Anyone with even the most limited knowledge of American football knows where I’m going next – Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary. It has a spot on any worthwhile ‘top sporting moments’ list – but it just so happened that this was more or less the first gridiron game I ever watched. The basics were being explained as it unfolded (ok, ten yards in four throws, got that... but what’s a down?) and then Flutie threw his bomb. Obviously, it was all downhill from there. I was never going to see anything quite so cool again, and sure enough nothing from a gridiron field has embedded itself into my memory as strongly as that 63 yard pass almost 27 years ago.

Plays like that are to be treasured, but what drove me to the keyboard was not the value of such moments to the spectator, but the cost to the players. The thought was provoked by a story about the fate of the Chicago Bears Dave Duerson - dead at his own hand at the age of 50, apparently unable to live with the damage done by all the concussive injuries from football. But I didn’t really need Duerson to start thinking about the price that athletes pay for those moments of glory - a couple of the guys that were sat beside me watching Flutie’s Hail Mary went on to become professional bullriders.

I’d flown into LA with $400, and after two and a half days on a Trailways bus I had arrived in Muskogee, Oklahoma. I had the surname of a relative of a school friend of my mother’s and not much else - not least because Trailways had mislaid my rucksack. The banks were shut and they were about to close the bus station. I had $6.50 in my pocket and there were four people with the right name in the phone book. I got lucky on the third (and last) go - down to my final fifty cents of change before I was thankfully swept up by some incredible southern hospitality.

I was a suburban Brit, brought up in a commercial fishing town that was nestled beside a series of inland lakes. And there I was in rural Oklahoma, hanging with a family that owned a rodeo ranch - supplying the bulls and other livestock to the event promoters. I travelled with them to the National Youth Rodeo in Fort Worth, and we were killing some time before that night’s contest when Doug Flutie did his thing. Here’s the link to the injuries page on the Professional Bull Riders website: http://pbrnow.com/riders/injury/. Let’s be honest, it’s pretty terrifying – and this is today, with vests and helmets – these guys are tough, but they can pay a heavy price for what’s been dubbed the most dangerous eight seconds in sport.

US National Youth Rodeo 1984
Now, I write suspense thrillers that have some sort of moral dilemma for the main character and I’m usually pretty clear where I fall on the issue (even if the hero isn’t) - but I must confess that it isn’t easy to see my way through this one. Is it possible to separate the joy of moments like Flutie’s Hail Mary from the consequences for some of those that play the game? Is the price of glory too high – can we watch all this and still feel comfortable?

At first glance, it isn’t going to make any difference whether we watch or not – people will do stuff that’s reckless, violent and potentially injurious regardless of whether dangerous professional sport exists or not. But there are still moral consequences from the decision to watch. Like it or not, you are both complicit in the action and helping to facilitate it; by paying for tickets, merchandise, cable tv or whatever other paraphernalia the sports marketing juggernaut throws at us.

So, what does it take to settle comfortably into the armchair quarterback position, without your conscience sticking a huge moral spike up your ass?

I think there is an important distinction to be made between sports like professional boxing, where violent injury is the intent, and sports like bull-riding and gridiron, where violent injury is an unfortunate or even tragic side effect. While I loved watching heavyweight boxing back in the days of Ali, Frasier and Foreman, what’s happened subsequently (to Ali in particular) makes me a little uneasy about watching it now. And I will certainly not go north of that line, towards cage fighting, with its echoes of the Roman Coliseum.

I can feel more comfortable watching sports where violence and injury are an unfortunate side effect, but with a couple of provisos. I love the Tour de France, but this Versus commercial for their 2011 TdF race coverage made me seriously queasy – don’t glorify the violence and the danger, it might come back to haunt you.

However, for me, the straightest route to a moral comfort zone is the care and attention that’s taken by the sport for the participants. The extraordinary recent documentary about Ayton Senna showed us how far Formula One has come since that dreadful weekend at Imola in 1994 – Senna was the last man to die at the wheel of a Formula One car. Boys will be boys but they often need to be saved from themselves. Health and safety legislation may be as out of control as the legal reprisals for negligence, but nevertheless, these days, I need to feel that the organisers are doing the right thing, even if it’s against their will.

It was said that the NFL lockout was as much about health as it was about money - and if that was the case, then the result should be something that we can feel a little bit happier about when we settle down to watch those early season games. Let's hope for no more Dave Duerson's...