Sports leagues more aware of health, human issues

Nov 3, 2009 5:01 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Under criticism and public pressure, sports around the world are looking inward these days, in a wave of rueful introspection that is late but welcome.

Football suddenly finds itself conscious and concerned about head injuries, as if the increasingly violent helmet-to-helmet crashes on the field are something new. Television, eager to please the bloodthirsty instincts of its fandom, makes certain the live action is amplified by lead-ins and clips edited to show the goriest of the smashups.

As the National Football League found itself in Washington last week, facing a House Judiciary Committee looking into the incidence of dementia in older retirees from the game, it suddenly admitted what it long has denied: that the carnage of the crashes may be leaving a costly trail.

The criticism reached all the way to the sportscasters booths, as Congressman Dan Lundgren of California told NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to take action to temper the glorification of hard hits on the field. Lundgren called them "stupid statements,"

The congressional committee seemed clearly more concerned with the impact of professional imagery on young players, high school and younger, who suffer concussions and do not have the immediate medical assistance that is part of the pro game. The hearings brought an off-field comment from Goodell that he would look into the possibility of the NFL helping educate young athletes and their coaches about brain trauma from head injuries.

It will be interesting to see the progress of that discussion, once the glare of the TV lights in Washington is gone.

Pro basketball took more hits during the week, not about brain damage of its athletes but about brain lapses of its referees.

Tom Donaghy, the former NBA referee run out of the game for allegedly consorting with gamblers, was back in full bloom with new charges of widespread misconduct by his former colleagues in the NBA.

Understandably a bitter man after a former federal prosecutor hired by the NBA to investigate the charges declared them unfounded, Donaghy is lashing out with claims that NBA referees favored certain teams and players and even manipulated games to extend playoffs. His latest charges are in a book not yet published but titled, "Blowing the Whistle: the Culture of Fraud in the NBA." The book may never see print, since the NBA reportedly threatened to sue a Random House associate named Triumph Books if it went forward with publication. It certainly won’t be published by Random House, which said it abandoned the project after examining the content and finding Donaghy’s charges and sources questionable.

The league and Donaghy’s former fellow referees are not taking the charges lightly. They both have said their integrity is first and foremost in their efforts, and the NBA has sent the matter back to its independent investigator for a complete review.

The damage, of course, has been done, even though the serious charges have been vigorously denied by all of those accused by Donaghy.

As that ugly scene was being played prominently by media, horse racing, often hampered by rules and regulations in a state-controlled game, took some serious action in New York.

The New York Racing Association barred California-based trainer Jeff Mullins from racing any of his horses for six months at Aqueduct, Belmont Park or Saratoga. Mullins, who has tangled frequently with regulators on both coasts, was run out for "surreptitiously bringing contraband into the NYRA security barn and then lying about it," according to NYRA’s integrity counsel, the law firm of Getnick and Getnick. Given that the ban was a NYRA decision and not a commission penalty, it is not likely that any reciprocal action will be taken elsewhere. Mullins has a horse entered in this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup extravaganza at Santa Anita.

On a far wider stage, horse racing, both runners and harness, has in the past year made major strides in curtailing whipping of horses. The thoroughbreds, deeply chastened by the public outcry after the death of Eight Belles, which did not involve whipping, has nonetheless introduced proactive new moves on a wide front as a result. Harness racing has succeeded in moving closer to worldwide uniformity in limiting whipping by requiring drivers to hold a rein in each hand, thus greatly limiting the flailing motion of one-handed whipping. The latest move comes in Australia, which now largely has adopted the new North American rules.

The inward looks, it appears, are producing progress.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Stan Bergstein