The poohbahs of two of the nation’s most popular pastimes have acted poorly and spoken loudly as to how, maybe they don’t really give a whit about players’ health and well-being, permitting perversity and demeaning behaviors to flourish in women’s soccer and brutality and an almost willful medical blindness to rise anew in pro football for head trauma.
What are parents supposed to tell their kids about such sports “role models?”
The sports pages are full of the scandals involving the disgraceful conduct of owners, coaches, and others in women’s soccer. That sport, according to an independent investigation by Sally Yates, a former deputy U.S. attorney general, was rife with “a troubling history of abuse … from youth leagues to the professional ranks,” the New York Times reported.
Yates found that elite women in this game were regularly berated, belittled, bullied, and excluded from any decision making in soccer. Sexual aggressiveness, serious misconduct, and exploitation by men in the game — coaches, administrators and the like — against women players was ignored or tolerated, if not encouraged with winking acceptance, becoming, as Yates characterized it, “systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims.”
League officials and other leaders in the game knew well of problems with rampant sexism, sexual harassment, and other misbehaviors, including sexual assaults, but did little or nothing to address the wrongs. As ESPN reported, based on Yates’ hundreds of interviews and hundreds of pages of reporting in her investigation:
“’Both U.S. Soccer and the league’s owners failed to institute the most basic of workplace protections,’ the [Yates] report says. ‘For most of the league’s 10-year existence, it has not had an anti-harassment policy, an anti-retaliation policy, or a no-fraternization policy, and it did not have ways for players to report inappropriate behavior. Teams also largely lacked a human resource department and did not conduct proper due diligence when hiring coaches.’ This resulted in ‘the systemic abuse of players,’ the report says. The report says sexist and demeaning remarks are normalized as ‘tough coaching’ for female players at the youth level, such that by the time they reached the [National Women’s Soccer League], many could ‘not recognize the conduct as abusive.’ Sexual relationships between players and coaches had also been normalized.’”
Heads have started to roll at different franchises, with owners, executives, and coaches stepping down or getting fired. More investigations are under way. But changing a culture and bringing it into modernity will be tough task for women’s soccer — as corporate America and mainstream medicine can illustrate with its lagging equality for women at work. It will be difficult, critics say, for fair-minded fans for now to see both pro leagues and their vast and growing amateur feeder systems as something more than sketchy ventures, instead of what should be a showcase for women to show off their talents in one of the world’s most popular games.
A concussion protocol flops as millions watch
After settling a billion-dollar legal donnybrook with players over the long-term harms of head traumas, wouldn’t common sense demand that the National Football League take this menace to its athletes’ health with great gravity and super care?
But the league’s insistence that it has — and does — evaporated in two much-discussed games involving the Miami Dolphins and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. He suffered plain-to-see major injuries in back-to-back games played just four days apart.
He was laid out by a powerful hit in the first game, leaving him flattened on the field. He got to his feet but then wobbled and staggered, later clutching his helmet and visibly dazed. Somehow, after getting checked out under the league’s purported “concussion protocols,” the quarterback was allowed to return to the game. The Dolphins said that he had suffered back and ankle injuries.
Tagovailoa then was cleared anew and permitted to play in the next contest, in which he again was decked, with Amazon Prime — a new broadcaster of NFL Thursday night games — repeatedly showing his battered state. He was taken off the field and to a hospital. But the team insisted that after medical exams, Tagovailoa was well enough to fly home with the Dolphins.
After sports writers, columnists, and broadcast commentators blasted the league and the team, the quarterback was sidelined. The players’ association used its sway to terminate the allegedly independent, unidentified, neurological doctor consultant.
The league also suddenly stepped up its head trauma vigilance anew, though several players, post the Tagovailoa debacle, suffered serious head hits — and somehow also were returned to, then were removed from, games.
The NFL and the players association reviewed the handling of the quarterback’s injuries and reexamined the concussion protocols and their execution, especially the independence and medical sway of contract physicians who serve as neurological consultants.
The sides announced that, golly, the protocols were followed but their results did not come out as intended. Got that? The NFL agreed to add a “no go” symptom, USA Today reported: “ataxia.” As USA Today reported:
“Any player showing signs of ataxia – an abnormality of balance/stability, motor coordination or dysfunctional speech caused by a neurological issue – is prohibited from returning to a game.”
This wasn’t already a common sense, disturbing state for a player to be in, and an existing cause to be kept out of play? Did the demand for a rising star in the league, on a hot team get the wrong kind of deferential treatment and was wrongly allowed to keep playing, despite injury? Was nothing learned about concussions during the players’ legal battles with the league?
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them by spinal cord and brain injuries, especially due to concussions and other head trauma. Brain harms change forever the lives of patients and their families. These injuries cannot be taken lightly or ignored, especially as growing evidence shows that severe damage can occur not only with big shocks to the head and neck but also due to repetitive lesser blows.
Progress has occurred in the battle against preventable head harms, especially in pro and amateur athletics. Better gear, more sensible rules and play, and other more positive steps are making a difference.
Protecting the vulnerable and elite
But advancements can be undone in an instant, especially if safety measures are skirted or ignored. Athletes, at all levels, may want to play so much that they will insist they are unharmed after suffering injury, especially harder to diagnose head trauma. But medical personnel, especially those with specialized training, cannot elude their professional, ethical responsibilities, notably their oath to ensure they “do no harm” to patients. It is no failing on their part, league critics say of medical specialists, to err on the conservative side to protect athletes, rather than exposing them to potential, further damage.
While so many of us may worship prop players as heroes of our day, it also is true that too many of us also objectify them. We stop seeing real, flesh-and-blood humans performing at high levels, reducing football stars, for example, as something akin to robotic gladiators, with expectations of their executing bone-jarring violence for public amusement. Women athletes, as top-flight soccer players have found, can be stripped of their humanity, too, and then be subjected to degrading treatment. This is a disgrace, and no woman in this country should be subjected to sexism, sexual harassment, or worse.
My colleagues and I see the problems they face when we work with clients suffering the damage that can be inflicted on children, youths, and women by sexual abuse.
In recent times, we have seen a growing list of horrific breaches of basic human decency by sexually exploitative doctors, teachers, youth leaders, and priests. The latest example of this egregious behavior occurred at Columbia University and its New York hospital affiliates, involving a gynecologist who sexually abused dozens of patients. That wrongdoing, which still includes federal charge against the doctor, will cost the health system more than $200 million in settlements, with the price still rising.
It is appalling that universities have looked away as their medical staff have sexually abused students seeking health services at school. Wrongdoing by trusted individuals in positions of authority or major influence on others occurs in churches, schools, colleges and universities, organized athletics, and youth groups. It has occurred too often and unacceptably to girls and women participating in sports, notably in gymnastics.
Sexual assault happens far too often in our country. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. Unfortunately, these sex crimes often go unpunished by the criminal justice system. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators are never prosecuted, let alone sent to jail for their crimes.
While critics may deride the civil justice system, especially medical malpractice lawyers like me, lawsuits can provide a crucial way for victims to hold accountable sexual predators and the institutions that permit them to run amok. Victims also may suffer long-term emotional and psychological, as well as physical harms for which they will need years of costly professional care.