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…. Bang some heads

Mike Matheny retired this week, due to the lingering effects of the many concussions he sustained during his career. In today’s SF Chronicle, Gwen Knapp chronicles the Giants’ response to the issue:

…. On the surface, the Matheny concussion looked like an unfortunate fluke, and the outcome of it seemed to be a sad mystery. But the people on the Giants’ medical staff wouldn’t let it go that easily. As soon as the severity of Matheny’s injury became apparent, they started investigating on several fronts.

They interviewed 261 professional catchers about headaches, blurry vision, foul tips and masks. They tested the two basic types of masks, subjecting them to forces between 84 and 104 mph to see which model absorbed more impact. They watched endless hours of videotape to determine the frequency of foul tips. Above all, they discovered a cognitive-skills test — a surprisingly affordable one — that would help them monitor even subtle brain trauma. (Concussions, no matter how severe, tend to elude detection on conventional medical tests, such as an MRI exam or CT scan.)

Good for the Giants. It’s easy to understand how invisible this issue could be in the “tough it out” world of professional baseball. It is also easy to see just how much of an issue this would be, given the violence so common to the position of catcher.

Less obvious is the reality that professional athletes injure themselves in pursuit of their dreams, essentially constantly. Ongoing physical damage is so common to the world of professional athletes that we sometimes forget all about it. So, while the recent spate of articles about the post-career injuries and handicaps suffered by many, many professional football and baseball and hockey players may seem illuminating, sports fans who pay attention have known this for years.

It is a well-known, (albeit quietly well-known) fact that NFL players have life spans that are essentially the same as those of someone who lived in the Middle Ages. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear about some player for the ’70′s passing away. The NFL, then and now, is a war-zone, and a ten year career probably takes that many years away from a players life.

Less well-known is the fact that virtually all professional athletes live their retirement years in constant pain; many of them undergoing multiple operations to repair the damage done to their bodies in pursuit of their dreams. This can be expensive, to say the least. Harry Carson’s eloquent Hall of Fame speech brought to light the poor support the NFL has provided to many of the players who made the game what it is today; something that will probably prove to be Roger Goodell’s first lasting impact as the new Commissioner, as he will almost certainly move quickly to correct this injustice.

None of this is nice news, none of it should be treated as irrelevant; but it is worth mentioning that plumbers and miners, carpenters and ditch diggers, electricians and waitresses…. many, many people who work with their bodies for a living live with constant pain from injuries and/or simple degradation of their joints, feet, shoulders, ankles, wrists, whatever.

Not to belittle the travails of Matheny, or those of the New England Patriots’ Ted Johnson, but a little perspective is a good thing. Matheny got hurt doing what he loved, making a handsome income while doing so. His post-baseball world will surely be difficult, but he will be able to afford the down time. And, sure the players from the ’60′s and ’70′s made a lot less money than today’s players; making their post-career difficulties even more painful. They also made a lot more money than, say, my Dad (a union plumber who missed four days of work in 35 years) did, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t work any harder.

I’m sorry for the difficulties Matheny is going through, and wish him a speedy and full recovery. But before we get too carried away, let’s remember all of the people we know, that we see every day, who suffer from debilitating injuries incurred during their time at the plate, as it were. My friend Dennis, 55 years old, inoperable damage to both shoulders and his back, needing morphine pills to make it through his days. My friend Tommy, same age as me, three operations now on the eye that got injured building homes in upstate NY with my brother-in-law; maybe he recovers his sight, maybe not. My Dad, bad knee, arthritic hip, 67 years old, just hoping to play a couple of rounds of golf a week in his retirment years.

I myself, after 20 years as a carpenter and builder, have two bad elbows, two bad shoulders, and a bad back. I’m 42 years old, and have trouble picking up my kids. In many ways, that’s life. Work your ass off for twenty, thirty years; you’re gonna pay for it. Even if it’s 30 years at a desk, you’re gonna have to pay the piper. Athletes get enough accolades for their “heroism” already. Let’s not add too much more because they get hurt doing what they love. Seems to me that’s an everyday occurence in the real world.


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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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