For all the violent cliches and phrases associated with sports and the talk of battles and opponents and whatnot, we’ve never really been able as a society to reconcile sports with tragedy. Sudden death in football and actual sudden deaths just don’t mix.
Nobody expects anyone to actually die in a game of basketball. The average MLB pitcher can throw a ball as fast as 90 or 100 mph and usually no lower than 60 mph and MLB batters use what are essentially heavy wooden clubs to bash those balls with all their might yet no MLB players and only one minor league coach have died from being hit by a baseball in any major or minor league game since 1920.
We’ve even finally begun to come round to the idea that even players in football and ice hockey, the two most violent major sports of all, deserve better than to literally watch their brains fade away, the victims of decades of devastating major and minor hits to the body.
So when an Indy Racing League driver (and a fairly well-known one at that) dies in a fiery crash in the circuit’s season finale on the same weekend that a high school football player in Homer, less than 30 miles from Ithaca, suffers a head injury during a game and dies, it’s pretty hard to take. No matter how hard you root against your favorite team’s opponent, you never want to wish death on them and actually mean it.
The driver in question was Dan Wheldon, who won the Indy 500 just this past spring. Despite that victory, he didn’t have a full-time ride this season so he participated in the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday in order to win a $5 million prize the IRL was offering for such drivers, only to perish in a horrific 15-car wreck.
The football player was Ridge Barden, a 16-year old student at Phoenix High School, who collapsed just after the final play of a game against Homer High School on Friday. According to WSYR-TV and local police, autopsy reports are now indicating that Barden died from bleeding in the brain caused by blunt force trauma he suffered on an injury during the game.
It’s yet another troubling reminder just how dangerous football can be for the people who play it, especially in an environment like New York state high school football, where it’s up to individual school districts to draw up policies for dealing with concussions and other football injuries.
Likewise, Wheldon’s death is sure to raise questions about whether the track where he crashed was too fast, whether safety procedures were followed or need to be revamped and just how much safety is possible in a sport which calls for drivers to race around oval tracks at over 200 mph.
In the meantime, we’re left to figure out how exactly to move on from something like this.