X-treme denial

Why aren't the player-safety concerns that dog the NFL an issue in ESPN's X Games?

It’s Super Bowl week, but the majority of talk from the pigskin chattering class revolved around football’s existential nature, thanks to President Obama saying he would hesitate to let his son (if he had one) play the sport, and to Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard opining that the NFL wouldn’t exist “30 years from now.” So the issue of player safety in football continues to, if not overshadow the game, certainly get its proper place in the discussion.

Meanwhile, over on ESPN, the network’s owned and operated “Super Bowl of Extreme Sports,” the X Games, continues to blithely chew up its competitors with scarcely a word to be heard about safety concerns—certainly not from ESPN, which sets much of the sports-talk agenda.

Late last week, snowmobile trickster Caleb Moore crashed during a jump. The heavy sled rolled over onto the 25-year-old Texan, and he sustained a concussion that has now deteriorated into bleeding around his heart and a worsening brain injury. After emergency surgery, Moore remains in critical condition. [UPDATE: Moore reportedly died of his injuries this morning.] His brother, Colten, also crashed during the Winter X Games, staged this year in Aspen, CO, fracturing his pelvis.

The same night as Caleb’s crash, a pair of female “slopestyle” skiers (who share the surname Battersby but are unrelated) sustained serious injuries. Rose Battersby, of New Zealand, fractured her spine in a crash, while Ashley Battersby was hospitalized with a knee injury after falling on the same course.

ESPN was forced to issue a release stating,

We’ve worked closely on safety issues with athletes, course designers and other experts for each of the 18 years of X Games. Still, when the world’s best compete at the highest level in any sport, risks remain. Caleb Moore is a four-time X Games medalist who fell short on his rotation on a move he has landed several times previously.

Fair enough. But at the same time, perky Aussie Ramona Bruland, the host of the Winter X Games, was chirping about an Icelandic snowboarder who fell heavily, sustaining “only a concussion.” And she was wowed by a different medalist who wasn’t slowed by the three bolts holding his forearm together. Bruland sounded very much like the ESPN Monday Night Football crew from just a few seasons ago, the ones who used to yell “He got JACKED UP!!” over highlight reels of excessively violent hits from the weekend.

The climate around football has changed to the point that celebrating head trauma would be a sackable offense (no pun intended). Yet the X Games seem to exist as much for the wreckage as for the successful jumps and tricks. Clearly, the X Games athletes have more or less come to grips with the dangers inherent in their various competitions, just as pro football players have. But while the NFL is being sued by former players and the league has reacted (some, like Pollard, would say overreacted) to the safety concerns, few question ESPN for staging and promoting a contest that encourages daredevils to push the outer limits of safety.

What began 18 years ago as filler programming that allowed ESPN to look hip while controlling all aspects of the event has morphed (some would say metastasized) into a crucial outlet for moneymaking, not just for the athletes but for sponsors and marketers of all stripes. Winning an X Games medal is huge—doing something truly “out there” on such a huge stage is even more important.

Provided the competitor lives to reap the rewards, that is.

Fast breaks

In the swirl of the Super Bowl, Manti Te’o’s enduring tragicomedy, and the seemingly daily revelations of sustained and bizarre drug use by athletes, you probably missed this announcement. But its implications are potentially far-reaching. In essence, a judge ruled that an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA by several former players can continue, tossing aside a request by the collegiate athletic governing body to dismiss the case.

The players, led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, are suing to receive a cut of live broadcast revenues. To get a sense of the numbers we’re talking about, CBS and Turner are paying $10.8 billion (with a ‘b’) over the next 14 years for rights to the NCAA tournament alone (not all of that money is for live TV broadcast, but still). The players, on whom the entire plantation-style house of cards constructed by the NCAA is built, stand to at last receive some remuneration for their efforts.

There is still much legal wrangling ahead, but this stands as the most serious threat to the “amateur” status claimed by the NCAA in a long time, perhaps ever.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , , ,