KYTE COLUMN: A life without risk isn’t worth living
The last time I came home with a broken nose, my wife just rolled her eyes and said, “Aren’t you getting too old for this?”
I’ve been playing basketball for half a century, and during that time I’ve both sustained and witnessed more injuries than I can count: broken bones, tendon and ligament tears, concussions, contusions, cuts, scrapes, and bruises. A couple teammates have had heart attacks. One, unfortunately, resulted in death.
He was a gifted athlete in his mid-30s and seemed to be in exceptional health. He collapsed in the middle of a game. We took turns administering CPR while waiting for an ambulance. It was not enough.
Basketball is not what anyone would consider an especially dangerous sport. The risks of serious injury or death from basketball are not even close to the risks posed by other popular sports.
Horseback riding accounts for more than 200 deaths each year and thousands of serious injuries. It is more dangerous than motorcycle racing. Last year 48 people died in skiing accidents. Downhill mountain biking has an estimated rate of 40 injuries per 1,000 hours of riding.
What about football? Is that a dangerous sport?
In the days after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, a number of people began questioning the sport’s high degree of violence and the serious risks to players of debilitating injury or death. But it seems to me that most of these opinions fail to consider football in relation to the many other dangerous things people do every day.
Let’s face it. Most Americans today have limited ability to assess acceptable levels of risk in their own lives or the lives of others. We live in places where each accident is an occasion for safety improvements by professionals who do systems design. We drive to work in cars with seatbelts, airbags and crumple zones. We spend our days in offices with HEPA air filters and ergonomic office chairs. When a custodian mops the floor, they place a caution sign to warn people about slipping.
We spend so much time in environments designed to eliminate even the smallest risks to our health that when we witness somebody get seriously injured playing a game like football, it violates our carefully cultivated sense of normalcy.
But the kind of person who says that football is a “violent spectacle” that has “no place” in our society, or who writes that it is “inhumane” to expect players to put themselves at risk of serious injury for our entertainment, is someone who has conveniently forgotten that people put their health and their lives at risk every day, sometimes to secure some economic benefit but often for what seems to be no reason at all.
Loggers, roofers, miners and farmers all risk their lives on a daily basis to provide society with needed goods and services. The next time you order a cod dinner at a restaurant, remember that 100,000 fishermen lose their lives every year supplying the world with seafood.
People do dangerous things all the time, and not just to make a living. Millions of Americans ride motorcycles, snowmobiles and ATVs. They climb mountains, go skydiving, surfing and scuba diving.
All of which raises the question: What attitude should we take toward danger in our lives? Should we always try to live as safely and as risk-free as possible, or is it OK to seek out certain forms of risk?
John Muir writes in “Stickeen” about the time he and a dog went out to explore a glacier and nearly lost their lives. The year was 1880, during his second excursion to Alaska. While moored in Taylor Bay, he woke up to a terrific rainstorm. He writes, “I had intended making a cup of coffee and getting something like a breakfast before starting, but when I heard the storm and looked out, I made haste to join it; for many of Nature's finest lessons are to be found in her storms.”
This is an attitude toward danger and discomfort that seems nearly unimaginable to many people today, and yet others identify with it immediately. That’s a good thing. Ancient philosophers regarded courage as one of the four essential virtues because in a world full of serious risks, it is important that we be able to face danger with composure. That does not mean ignoring risks but instead knowing when a risk is worth taking.
Like many fans, I am glad the NFL is doing more to protect players from injury, especially head trauma. I don’t like to see players get injured. That is not why I watch the game. I watch it to see Justin Jefferson make a diving one-handed catch or Micah Parsons chase a running back down from behind, and I think: “Wow; I can’t believe that is even possible.”
To be able to do something, even for a brief period of one’s life, that stretches the bounds of human possibility is meaningful. It is something that can make even serious risks worth taking.
My wife is right. I’m too old to be playing basketball the way I used to play it. I don’t drive the lane or crash the boards much anymore. I just limp up and down the court wishing I still had the ability to play more aggressively.
When I go to my annual physical and the doctor asks me whether I have fallen recently, I can truthfully say, “Not too much, but I’m still trying.” I’m not worried about the dangers of falling nearly so much as the danger of no longer attempting things that might make me fall.
Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of “The Ethical Life” podcast.