Wednesday, June 20, 2012

We are all Len Boogaard

I was about to comment on this post by Craig, but I quickly realized I have more to say than just adding a short comment.  There's a lot to process, so I'm going to just label separate points (though they are not necessarily in order of importance).

1) There may be legitimate legal culpability here for individual teams and ultimately the NHL.  In my last post yesterday I pointed out how UEFA is fining individual teams for the actions of fans, and discussed the legal concept of respondeat superior.  To repeat, respondeat superior says that someone with supervisory powers can be held responsible for the actions of those they supervise.  In cases where the conduct wasn't known, the supervisor can still be held responsible if they should have known and could have found out or prevented such action through reasonable efforts.

Now go back and read that Deadspin article.  Two separate teams had official team doctors over-prescribing medication.  This is not a situation where Boogaard was forging prescriptions or had a back-alley dealer hooking him up.  He was getting his valid prescriptions from licensed professionals directly employed by his team, a team that stood to financially benefit from these doctors giving him more pain pills so that he could continue playing without obvious impairment.  Set aside any conspiracy theories.  Let's assume the team didn't know he was overdosing.  Let's assume the doctors didn't know he was playing them off each other and abusing these pills.  As Deadspin and Craig point out, it's very easy for them to have put a system in place to prevent it.  Whether you agree or not, our legal system is full of precedent that they had a legal obligation to do so.  Sticking your head and the sand and assuming nothing will ever go wrong is not a legitimate business practice.  You aren't obligated to prevent everything from ever going wrong, especially if criminal activity is involved, but you have to take reasonable efforts.  So this isn't a situation where there was a system in place whereby all prescriptions got reported up to the GM, and one of the eight doctors was sneaking out doses on the sly.  There was absolutely no oversight, accountability, or communication.

The thing is, we would never accept that from other businesses.  Hospitals keep a tight rein on drug supplies.  Walgreen's does.  Hell, there are bars out there that mark their liquor bottles at the beginning and end of shifts so they can see if their bartenders are giving out too many free drinks.  Lots of people bemoan the perceived "fact" that athletes get special treatment in the criminal justice system.  But what about their employers?  Most of these leagues already possess anti-trust exemptions, and now we say they are immune to civil or criminal liability when it comes to player health?  Yes, these games are dangerous and a certain assumption of risk is carried with that.  But that doesn't extend to the locker room, or the team doctor's office.

2) Even if you disagree with the idea that there is or should be any legal accountability here, isn't there a moral obligation to do as much as possible to prevent such tragedies going forward?  Ultimately we are talking about human lives.  Yes, these athletes are paid lots of money (though hockey ranks pretty low on the list of major sports in terms of player compensation).  And yes, lots of people, probably myself included, might be willing to take the Faustian deal of reduced life span or reduced quality of life in later years to make what a star athlete can make for the next ten years.  But that doesn't HAVE to be the case.  Players aren't highly paid in order to take risks or endure damage to their bodies.  If they were, everyone on the roster would be paid the same.  No, they are paid as highly as they are because professional sports rakes in billions of dollars, and the highest paid athletes contribute the most to that.  Star athletes sell more sneakers and more tickets and more booze, so they get paid more as a result.

We can have both.  We can put systems in place to reduce injuries, reduce instances of substance abuse, and prevent a loss of quality of life for players after retirement without giving up the games we love.  This isn't about paternalism, or taking away people's choices.  This isn't about protecting people from themselves, but simply about protecting people, period.  We owe that to each other not just as fans, or as employers, but as fellow members of the human race.  And if that isn't enough to convince you, imagine if it was your child that found themselves in Boogaard's shoes.

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