One of the wisest observers of the Michael Vick scenario is a coach and trainer named Sal Marinello. Though not well known to readers of this blog, he is a fine example of what I call the fatalistic wing of the concussion debate — honorable sports industry professionals who don’t deny the magnitude of traumatic brain injury but who, in my view, need a nudge toward recognizing that their fatalism is neither pragmatic nor acceptable when it comes to tackle football funded and promoted by, for example, public high schools.
Marinello’s credentials include: USA Weightlifting certified coach; president of the Millburn-Short Hills (New Jersey) Athletic Club; assistant men’s basketball coach at Montclair State University; and head athletic development coach for both Mercy College (New York) men’s lacrosse and Chatham (New Jersey) High School.
Here’s his take, via email, on Vick: “Despite the post-game comments, anyone who watched the Eagle game could see that a) Vick certainly was not ok and b) the Eagle game plan reflected this. He also took several shots to the head that seemed to affect him. Since he broke his hand and will be out 3-4 weeks he will get the ‘rest’ he needs.”
More important, here’s a longer essay from Marinello’s blog, entitled “There is no Such Thing as Safer Football,” http://www.healthandfitnessadvice.com/the-healthy-skeptic/there-is-no-such-thing-as-safer-football.html. The money paragraph:
“Tobacco will never be outlawed, and neither will football. Education has resulted in fewer people smoking, and the attention paid to the risks and dangers will probably have the same effect on football. Will fewer kids play? Probably. Is this a bad thing? Probably not, and for a variety of reasons.”
You have to appreciiate Sal’s candor — three days after he posted this piece, his own son broke his arm playing football.
But you also have to wonder whether he’s asking the right question. Sure, tobacco will never be outlawed. But do high school recreation centers include cigarette vending machines? (Sal disagrees with my analogy. He retorts, “What would you say when parents and residents of a town do not complain about having — or want — the machine in the school? This scenario more aptly describes the current situation.”)
Another smart observer in the fatalistic camp is Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights. I am not trying to put words in Bissinger’s mouth, but my sense is that — like Marinello and unlike, for example, Alan Schwarz, Chris Nowinski, and Dr. Robert Cantu — Bissinger isn’t searching for an imaginary sweet spot in football safety. Though he recognizes that the game can be improved around the margins, he also understands that its bloodsport essence is athletically unalterable.
The Marinellos and Bissingers have to be careful, though, because their positions get appropriated by yahoos and libertarian wackos. In Bissinger’s case, he has written movingly about the passion play of football in places like Texas; if he is saying that elites are acting drastically when they seek to tamper with popular mass entertainment on the basis of intellectual abstractions, he has a point.
But I don’t think the evidence of epidemic health damage to American youth is any more an abstraction. At the very least, the fatalists and the idealists need to join forces to remove the blinders from the deniers.