Sunday, September 15, 2013


                The National Football League has settled the lawsuits against it by the retired players who claim it misled them about the risks of the head injuries they suffered in its employ. The preponderance of journalistic opinion is that the deal is a big win for the league.
             The plaintiffs in the suit—some 4,500 of them—are to split $765 million. That seems like a very large sum until you divide it by the number of teams in the league—32—and the 20-year period over which it will be paid.  Although payment will be front-loaded, with half the money to be distributed during the first three years, each team’s average annual payout will come to about $1.2 million, which is about what it spends for Ben Gay and Ace bandages.

 When you note that the NFL’s revenue last season was about $10 billion, and the figure is expected to rise steeply in the years immediately ahead, the conclusion that it made out like a bandit seems inescapable.

And as the TV pitchmen say—Wait! There’s more! The settlement covers all ex-players, not only those who signed up as plaintiffs, so if one of them develops neurological symptoms years down the road—a not-uncommon occurrence with head injuries—he’ll have to share from the existing pot. Current and future players aren’t included, but they are parties to labor-contract provisions that will subject their claims to arbitration, which typically is less generous to plaintiffs than litigation.

The NFL got off without having to apologize or admit fault, things that are dear to the stony hearts of corporate lawyers.  Additionally, the settlement saved it the considerable legal costs trials would have entailed and spared it from having to produce for cross-examination its dubious experts who until recently were telling the players and the rest of the world that there was no proven link between playing football and ailments like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia, even though studies to the contrary have existed for more than 30 years.  Again, rack up a “W” for the Big Team in Suits.

So why did the players agree to such a deal? Because many of the afflicted retirees are broke and hurting, unable to wait out the years that litigation would have taken and justifiably leery about their prospects of proving in court that their illnesses stemmed from injuries they sustained as professionals, not as high-schoolers or collegians.

  The “broke” part pertains mostly to ex-NFL bit-parters who never made much money in the game, but it’s notable that the plaintiffs’ list also included such recent-year stars as Bruce Smith, Tony Dorsett, Art Monk, Harry Carson, Leroy Butler, Fred Taylor, Andre Reed and Jim McMahon, whose medical and care requirements eventually could strain even their once-ample bank accounts. Perhaps they and others looked at the head-injury-related suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Andre Waters and decided that if help didn’t come soon it might be too late.

Still, the belief that the NFL got off cheap may be premature. Yeah, the league admitted no guilt, but the Latin phrase “res ipsa loquitur,” meaning “the thing speaks for itself,” seems to apply, with 765 million reasons to back it up. In paying the settlement, the league ratified the idea that playing football has serious potential health consequences.  The action takes the sport out of the category of a healthful exercise that might be appropriate at the school as well as the adult level and ranks it with auto racing and downhill skiing as a daredevil pursuit that should be undertaken only with full appreciation of its risks.

A similar recognition is inherent in the recent changes the league has made to prevent head injuries and better treat ones that occur. While laudable, they also underline the fact that something dangerous is going on between the sidelines, which the evidence of our senses confirms every Sunday.  

  What’s the chance of incurring a debilitating neurological injury at age 50 after, say, 10 or 12 years of playing organized football—1%, 5%, 20%?  How about after four or eight years in the sport? We don’t know now but the data is out there and one day it will be tabulated definitively. If the results don’t deter the players themselves—young athletes are strong and cocky, and think that injuries are things that happen to other people—it might make an impression on the parents who have to approve their participation in schools and colleges.

 These parents might note that young, developing brains are more susceptible to trauma than the more-mature ones of the NFL behemoths. They also might heed some recent research that concludes that an individual needn’t have sustained a “big bang” head blow resulting in a verifiable concussion to suffer lasting neurological damage—that the numerous, smaller “dings” he shrugs off in practice or games can have a cumulative affect that can amount to about the same thing.

 You love football, I love football, and the players and their moms and pops love football, but maybe something similar will happen to perceptions about the game. It may take a while but if it does the NFL won’t be celebrating its “victory.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013


                I hate to see people suffer, so as a sports columnist I avoided events such as marathons and triathlons, whose main point seemed to be to determine how much punishment humans could endure. Even the winners of those things looked like they’d been through a wringer.  Good manners dictated looking away.
                I feel the same way about some of the men’s matches in the U.S. Open tennis tournament, now unfolding at the old World’s Fair grounds in the New York borough of Queens, and on your TV screens. The tourney’s best-of-five set format—like that of the other three tennis “majors” (the Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon)—often results in four-or-five hour contests that can leave their contestants stumbling, gasping, cramping and generally hanging on for dear life. It’s an anachronism whose time has passed.

                Fact is, best-of-five already is history in the big majority of tennis tournaments—men’s as well as women’s—where matches go to the first winners of two sets. It survives in the men’s majors because… well, just because. Tennis, after all, is the sport in which “love” means nothing, and the roots of whose points system—15, 30, 40, game—are lost in antiquity.   I asked around about that “love” thing once, and was told it stemmed from the French “l’oeuf”, which means “the egg.”  But though an egg is roundish, like a zero, it’s too thin a joke to be repeated endlessly.

                Tennis does alter its scoring rules occasionally—about every half-century. The last big one came in 1970 when it changed the win-by-two requirement by adapting the first-to-seven-points tiebreaker to end sets that are tied at six games each. Typically, though, the change has been less than universal, and the U.S. Open is the only major to apply it to a fifth set. That means that while sets no longer can go on indefinitely in Melbourne, Paris and London, matches can.

                  It was only a matter of time before Murphy’s Law, which holds than anything that can go wrong will, would bite tennis with a vengeance. In 2011 at Wimbledon the American John Isner and the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut went at it in a first-round five-setter that lasted 11 hours and five minutes and sprawled over three days, with two continuations for darkness. The game score of the last set was 70-68, if you can believe it.  Because Isner needed a couple of days to recoup for more singles, and both players had doubles commitments that had to be postponed, it screwed up the tourney’s schedule for a week.

                The year 1970 was pivotal for tennis for other reasons. That was about the time when the wooden racquet, the game’s standard forever, began to give way to ones with steel or aluminum frames. Those materials gave players more bang but were only a taste of what would happen when more-exotic substances like graphite, boron and Kevlar came on the scene, sometimes in combination. They allowed racquet frames to become far stronger, lighter and more flexible than previously.  

                Back in “woody” days,   racquets had faces that measured about 65 square inches, weighed 13 ounces and had “sweet spots”—the hitting areas of maximum power and control—about as big as silver dollars. Now face measurements run to 145 square inches (although most pros use smaller), weigh 10 or 11 ounces and have sweet spots as big as grapefruits.  Add the improvements in strings and stringing and the difference between today’s racquets and old-style ones is about the same as that between an Uzi and a B-B gun.

                The early expectation was that the power surge would most benefit big servers, allowing them to blow their foes off the courts. It didn’t turn out that way. Equally well-armed defenders nullified their thrusts by retreating a few feet from the baseline and slinging serves back almost as hard as they came in. That killed serve-and-volley tennis, once an enlivening stylistic staple, and turned every point into a duel of baseline rockets that continues until one player falters.  It’s made matches longer but not, by me, better. When players don’t wear different-colored clothes it’s hard to them apart.  

                Other factors have made tennis a more grueling game than it once was. The sport these days has a year-round schedule, and its most-used surface is “hard court,” which can mean several things but usually boils down to playing on asphalt. As any recreational runner can tell you, pounding away on hard surfaces is tough on legs and feet, and the better traction they provide means more wear on joints.

 Also, there are more good players than there used to be, meaning that the early rounds of the grand-slam events can be testing even for the top seeds. Back in the day those worthies could count on skating through the first three or even four rounds without much resistance, but today some young Slovenian ranked No. 116 can keep numbers one or two scrambling for hours before succumbing, or not. It’s no wonder that just about every top player must play through pain, and few envision grinding on into their late 30s, the way Ken Rosewall or Jimmy Connors did. Roger Federer, the best player of this era, just turned 32 and can’t get through a press conference without being asked about his retirement plans.  Rafael Nadal, Federer’s closest pursuer, is 27, and given his all-out style and injury history isn’t a good bet to be playing at 30.

Best-of-five might have made sense in Jack Kramer’s time, when players played a dozen events a year, but no more. Two and a half or three hours of tennis—the usual length of a well-contested three-setter—is more than enough to determine who’s best at any level. The way it is now, someone should call OSHA on behalf of the guys, or the SPCA.