Among today’s topics: Brain damage issue and the NFL

Have stray thoughts and idle musings on a couple of issues to kick around while awaiting the wild and crazy realizations of the garrison finish we may get in baseball’s regular season:

With a fortnight left, the Astros appear the first victims. Nor can we yet assume the Yankees will inevitably survive. Beware the Angels breaking out of the middle of the pack after three months of dithering. Nor are the Twins dead yet. While on the inside rail over in the other league, we have the Cubs overhauling the Pirates and exchanging beanballs with the Cards. Now sporting a beard, is there no limit to Joe Maddon’s audacity? Will the Mets find a way to fritter it away while the Dodgers and Royals are being drained by sheer boredom?

If not what might have been, September Ball picks up gusto belatedly. You gotta love it!  Too bad the Red Sox didn’t wake up about a month earlier. On the other hand, who among us expected they’d be only six out of the wild card with precisely two weeks to go. Wait until next year, one supposes.

As was suggested in this space a week ago, the most important, potentially destructive, and ultimately costly issue the NFL faces this season is far removed from the playing fields. A report from the Boston University project studying football’s link with brain damage should give the NFL warlords cause to shudder.

In just the latest thunderbolt delivered by the study, it’s revealed that of 91 deceased players on whom autopsies were performed, 87 (i.e., 96 percent) were “found to have evidence of the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE” (i.e., degenerative brain disease). Furthermore, studies of 165 former players who had mainly performed at lesser than professional levels (high school, college, semi-pro) revealed a 79 percent incidence of meaningful CTE, which suggests the game need not be played at its ultimate level of ferocity to be mighty risky.

While just the tip of the iceberg, this revelation is a blockbuster in the intensifying campaign to force football to fully come to grips with the problem, not only ethically but also financially. And the potential where the latter is concerned may be astronomical. It should particularly stir fears among those responsible for high school and college programs. Can anyone associated with such possible consequences afford to ignore such data? Football is in trouble.
But the real, immediate, and heaviest focus is on the NFL, where precisely  defined culpability has already been established with the league having been forced to accept degrees of responsibility and indemnify victims, the fund for which has been swelling and may now explode in size. It’s at the point where every deceased NFL alumnus – no matter how long or hard he played – will be routinely checked for CTE because it has also been established that heirs of victims are eligible for damages.

Is the sky not the limit here? Probably!  Nor is there an NFL owner, one reckons, not in some panic at what seemingly looms even as we speak. Stay tuned!     

On the subject of teams and leagues enduring, shall we say, “anxiety,” there’s the Chicago Blackhawks and the National Hockey League. The issue is Patrick Kane, superstar of the world champion Hawks and one of the league’s genuine matinee idols.

Unfortunately, Kane, a colossal talent but also an out-of-control brat since arriving in the league, is accused of sordid indiscretions, including rape, with the allegations now being weighed by authorities in Buffalo, his hometown. The process has been slow, fuming seven weeks since the alleged incident during which interlude leaks have been both plentiful and conflicting while Kane vigorously denies all. A grand jury is expected to get the case soon, leaving the huge question: what to do with him in the meantime?

The Hawks answer is, apparently, nothing.  They’ve welcomed him at pre-season camp, defended him implicitly, and allowed him to proceed with business as usual as if nothing had happened let alone anything pending.

Okay, so it’s a hard call. He claims innocence and he has not been charged. On the other hand, we’re talking serious stuff here; aggravated sexual assault is a solid cut above and beyond what’s usually involved in these lamentable discussions. Does that make the sensitivities more compelling? Shouldn’t it?

It’s already getting awkward.  In their wisdom, the Hawks let Kane cavort in their first major pre-season scrimmage to which rabid Blackhawk fans were allowed to attend, and many thousands did, wildly receiving their beloved young star winger and making it vehemently clear whose side they’re on. Awkward at best, wouldn’t you agree?

When professional sports and the criminal justice system get entangled, it always gets messy, making it vital that teams act prudently. The Hawks aren’t doing so. It’s only September, the very beginning of pre-season, so it’s weak to argue a full workload is crucial for an established star like Kane. Moreover, this case is very serious. The deployment of Kane should be restrained at least until the authorities decide what they must do.  

In the meantime there remains the salient question for the Blackhawks. If Master Kane were just another slug fighting for a job and not a super-dynamic, $10 million a year, wildly popular all-star and premium gate-attraction, would you be acting the same way? Now there’s the rub, eh.  

It was little noted when it happened because he plays in the baseball obscurity of Miami, but the injury that ended Giancarlo Stanton’s season in June quashed what might have been a season for the ages.
When the extraordinary if little known young slugger went down he already had nearly 30 homers and more than 70 RBIs with the season not even half over.  He thereby projected to roughly 60 homers and more than 150 ribbies and being the enormously gifted and consistent character that he is as he approaches his peak, he was a solid bet to do that. And had he done it he would have been the first since Roger Maris to match that magical home run distinction legitimately, given that it can be safely assumed he isn’t powering up with PEDs.

Stanton would be quite a treat performing for a true major league franchise in a true major league town but alas the Marlins have tied him up for the next decade at about $30 million per, something they can ill afford. Which gives us hope, the Marlins being the Marlins, that they’ll soon enough dump him on a real team in New York, LA, Chicago, even Boston where his talents cane be properly appreciated.   

Lastly, in their final evaluations of the Cherington era in Red Sox history, the cranky brain trust at Fenway might consider giving their deposed general manager good marks on two of his most controversial calls. He let Jacoby Ellsbury walk and refused to bite for Jon Lester’s manifestly excessive contract demands. They were bold calls derided to varying degrees by both the faithful and the pundits. And at the moment both look brilliant.

In the throes of a horrible second half of the season, wherein he’s hitting roughly .200 with utterly no power, Ellsbury looks more and more a has-been for the Yankees whose need for him to be worth every bit the more than $20 million they’re annually paying him is currently desperate. He’s nicked-up, of course, and worn-down. But then he has always been and that’s precisely the point. Sluggish most of the year, Lester is 10-11 with a 3.46 ERA, which is quite ordinary for the high flying Cubs and hardly what they expected for the $20 million plus per year they’ve invested.

While I wouldn’t bet on it, there’s time enough for each to achieve redemption this year and well beyond. But it’s not too early to conclude they would not have been worth the money it would have taken to keep them.

In his Christmas card, John Henry will no doubt add, “Thanks, Ben.”