meIt was late last year that people began to notice that Jan Vertonghen was decidedly off pace at Tottenham. He was slow on the mark, slow on the ball, slow to react. From time to time, entire passages of the game seemed to be overlooked. And so naturally, as an underperforming player in a popular ball game, it felt good that he should be subjected to the same tone of ridicule and abuse as anyone else in his position.
I went back to social media during some of their poorer games last season and pulled out some of the most iconic comments from Spurs fans and others. “Missing legs”. “Sad, but I have no idea what day it is.” “Get this clown out of my club.” “Finished.” “Pass it”. “Total shame.” “To sell.” “Dead wood”. “Steal a life”. “Happy if I never see him with the shirt again.”
Well now we know what was really going on. Last week, Vertonghen revealed that for most of the past season he was suffering from the aftermath of a concussion suffered against Ajax the previous April. “I suffered a lot from dizziness and headaches,” said Vertonghen, now at Benfica. “It affected me for eight or nine months. I still had a year left on my contract and I thought I had to play because I had to show myself to other clubs. “
On Monday, a task force led by the Premier League and with the Football Association, the EFL, the Professional Footballers Association and the Women’s Super League sat down to discuss whether there should be restrictions on heading the ball in adult football. . It follows a 2019 study from the University of Glasgow that found that professional footballers were three times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases than the rest of the population.
Meanwhile, former England hooker Steve Thompson is one of several former players who took legal action against World Rugby, Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union for an alleged failure to protect them from repeated head trauma.
Thompson is 42 years old and was diagnosed with dementia. He no longer remembers winning the World Cup in 2003. “Was he the great love of my life?” he said about rugby union in an interview with this newspaper two weeks ago. “No, not really. But it was a job.”
One question to consider as you go through all of this: what does it make you feel? Sadness? Or sadness with a “but”? But: Vertonghen and Thompson knew what they were doing. But: they were paid handsomely for their inconvenience. But: you can’t ban pitching in football, that’s ridiculous.
But: Any of us could suffer a traumatic brain injury just walking down the street and into the path of a falling piano. Life is risky. Sport is dangerous.
There is a broad school of thought here that at its core, the debate about head injuries in elite sport, which can easily spread to other areas of player wellness, is simply a matter of personal choice. If athletes are prepared to pursue careers in professional sport, as long as they are fully informed of the risks and in possession of the latest medical science, who are we to prevent them?
Every now and then, you’ll even see this idea expressed in terms of liberation, self-realization, even gratification – the notion that danger is not just part of the basic thrill of sport, but the goal as well. That the essence of sport is linked to sacrifice. That on some level we are all animalistically addicted to testing ourselves, to striving, to breaking ourselves. Or at least watch with a beer while others do.
If we can no longer pay teenagers ridiculous money to have their brains damaged for our satisfaction, then frankly, are we still free as a species? And ultimately, this is a question that gets to the very core of what the sport means and who it serves. After all, elections are not made in a vacuum: they are influenced, driven, incentivized.
Vertonghen kept playing because he felt his livelihood was at stake. Thompson kept playing because it was his job to do so. No well-intentioned scientific article or press release will prevail over profit motive. Therefore, to focus on personal autonomy is to ignore the extent to which athletes, like all workers, are incorporated into an economy that they did not choose and over which they have little or no influence.
This is, of course, how sports capitalism works: I entertain myself, you get paid, and everything else is a showcase. Sports capitalism simply compensates for your fatigue, your mental health problems, your insecurities, your quality of life, your memory loss, your pain. If a ligament is torn, then it is financially counterproductive for your club to make it play.
But a concussion? Well, we didn’t see anything, and obviously you can’t, so … how about we keep this to ourselves? In part, it is a criticism of a system that essentially considers the athlete as an industrial plant: a part, a tool, a resource from which to extract performance value. But also, in part, this is a process in which we all participate. And for those of us who enjoy sports, perhaps this is a time to consider what we owe to people who risk their safety for our entertainment. Remember that wellness doesn’t start and end with a salary.
Bear in mind, above all, that within every superhuman athlete there is a human who bends and breaks like everyone else.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.