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Sports Gone Wild
Part 1: Are We Part of the Problem?


You've seen it all on the news: players assaulting fans, fans assaulting athletes, college footbrawl games, crass posturing, off-field criminal—or at least debasing—behavior, rampant drug use. In short, athletes whom we look to for inspiration are instead acting as though they live above the laws that govern civil society. What's gone wrong? And, more important, how have sports medicine professionals contributed to it?

Last month (January) I explored the problem of drugs in sports. This month I'd like to dig deeper, for I believe that underlying many of the problems in sports is a culture that all of us might be fostering.

We have witnessed the cross-section of vices that sports now lays claim to: violence, power, drugs, sex, and the love of money. Let's be realistic. The noble components of competition—perseverance, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc—have gradually melted under the intense heat of competition's dark side. The reality is that sport is entertainment, driven by power and economics. These principles started to rule only professional sports; now we see them at the Olympic, collegiate, and even high school level.

This multiheaded dragon thrives today in large part because our society has created separate standards for athletes. Players can ignore curfew, act arrogantly and rudely, abuse drugs, assault women, and generally perceive themselves to be the center of the universe—and we look the other way, because they will help bring revenue or a championship to our school, city, state, university, or country. The December 20, 2004, issue of Sports Illustrated details the fall of Jeff Allison, the top US high school pitcher in 2003, at the hands of an OxyContin addiction. Several people in Allison's hometown knew of his drug problems, but no one wanted to derail the promising ascent of a star. It's a story that's played out in myriad variations across the country, because sports has assumed an omnipotent status.

The most troubling aspect of the sports-is-life mantra is how early in life it begins. One powerful source is parents who allow athletics to rule the family. Another is coaches without perspective. And a third, certainly, is elite athletes who serve as role models, whether or not they or we like it. Randy Moss pseudomoons the crowd and then gets randy with the goal post, and kids copy his antics on the playground. But, because he makes millions, Moss doesn't care what example he sets. Money justifies everything.

I could go on forever, but I want to bring this as close to home as possible. How have we in the medical community contributed to this phenomenon?

For starters, let's think about how we perceive athletes. Do we view them as patients, showing concern for their health above their ability to win? A January 27 Associated Press story highlights the reverse attitude. The Philadelphia Eagles head athletic trainer explained how it might be OK to go against the medical opinion of orthopedist Mark Myerson, MD, who repaired Terrell Owens' fractured fibula, but did not clear him to play in the Super Bowl. Rick Burkholder, ATC, said, "It's just that our risk-reward is different than [Myerson's] risk-reward. He has great risk in clearing Terrell to play and no reward. We think there's some risk, and we think there's great reward, so right now we're going to progress with his rehab."

Note that the "great reward" here is winning a football game.

This quote sums up today's reality fairly well—for physicians, health is an end in and of itself. In athletics, health is simply a means to an end.

Which is your focus?

Gordon O. Matheson, MD, PhD

P.S. Next month: a slew of solutions to this slough.