A League of Fans Special Feature
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes extensively on sports issues, focusing on the people and issues around the games. Three of his features have been selected for the highly-acclaimed The Best American Sports Writing anthology.
Hruby has an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, with a double major in English and Government, and a master’s degree from Northwestern. He currently writes for the Washington Times, and is a regular contributer to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and The Atlantic online.
Hruby is one of our best writers on contemporary sports issues. He regularly cranks out insightful and compelling feature articles and columns.
Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Hruby on a variety of topics.
Ken Reed: You have a unique approach to sports. First of all, you focus on sports issues, not scores. Second, you always seem to be able to put a human face on issues. How did you evolve to this approach?
Patrick Hruby: Sports coverage has exploded the last 10 years. With the Internet and cable TV, we’re oversaturated with sports coverage. I don’t like to write and say the same things as everybody else. It’s important to me that I feel what I’m doing is different. If it’s not, it feels like a failure or a waste of time.
My goal is to make readers feel something, to touch them. We’re a technological society today but people haven’t evolved as fast as technology. People respond to story-telling, the human element, drama, and conflict. It’s how we make sense of things.
I think story-telling is really how you connect with people. Story-telling is how I hope to make people look at issues – concussions, for example — in a different way, or take a different action. If I accomplish that with a particular feature or column, I think I’m making a difference, and that’s a great feeling.
Reed: What do you think are the most important issues in sports today?
Hruby: I believe the most important issue by far is brain trauma, especially when you consider the huge number of children participating in sports. Children’s brains are still developing. Brain trauma at young ages can have lasting negative effects.
Brain trauma in youth sports, especially football, is both a scientific and moral issue. A recent study showed that the impact of hits in youth football have the same impact as hits in college football.
I ask people all the time, “Would you want your child involved with a junior high or high school boxing or MMA team?” In terms of the dangers of brain trauma, there’s very little difference between those two sports and football.
The brain is the seat of your self-awareness and so if your brain is injured you don’t always know how hurt you are. Diagnosing and treating brain injuries is so much more difficult than diagnosing and treating ACL knee injuries.
Another big sports issue is the moral unsustainability of college athletics, as it is presently structured. There’s a huge college sports economy that for the most part the athletes are left out of. As Taylor Branch pointed out in the Atlantic, it’s a big civil rights issue.
If the NCAA isn’t going to pay the athletes directly — which admittedly is very tricky, a lot of things would have to be worked out – then at least they have to stop telling college athletes that they can’t earn money from outside sources.
For example, why can’t a college athlete appear in an advertisement for the local car dealer and get paid for it? Why can’t an athlete receive a gift from an alum who wants to do it? Is it so ignoble for a college athlete to make money off his her talent and fame? Nobody in America has to deal with the restrictions on income that the NCAA imposes. Actors and musicians can go off to college, be on scholarship, and still make money off their talent. It’s morally wrong, and un-American, to prevent athletes from doing the same.
Reed: You recently wrote that you couldn’t watch football anymore based on what you’ve learned about football and brain trauma. Expound on that if you would.
Hruby: I’ve always loved watching football, especially on television. It’s the perfect sport for television. It’s also a big part of our country’s culture and the casual conversations we have with a lot of people in our lives.
It’s not that I don’t want to watch it, it’s that I can’t enjoy it because I know what these hits do to the human brain. Brain trauma not only destroys the lives of some players, it destroys the lives of the people around them. When you see firsthand what their daily lives are like, it’s depressing. I can’t not think about those people when I see football games.
It’s one thing when adults choose to play football. It’s another thing when children are playing football. We generally try to protect children in this society. For example, we don’t have 8-year-old kids in coal mines. But we allow 8-year-old kids to risk long-term brain damage playing football.
Reed: You’ve also written about fighting in the NHL, especially the league’s long history of employing goons primarily for their fighting ability. Where do you stand on fighting in the NHL today?
Hruby: Fighting in the NHL is anthropological in nature. It’s part of the culture, not just for the fans but also the people that play it.
Hockey’s not really a mainstream sport in America anymore. Therefore, the violence and what it can do to the brain is given less attention than what football and the NFL receives. However, I think we’ll probably see the same type of lawsuits brought by players against the NHL as the NFL is now seeing.
I think we need to get rid of fighting in hockey. That said, I do see more hope for hockey long-term than football. We can get rid of checking or at least make it a lot less physical, for example. Hockey doesn’t have to involve massive amounts of physical contact to remain essentially the same game.
On the other hand, you can’t get rid of the physical aspects of football and have it remain essentially the same thing. If you try, it becomes flag football.
When it comes to football, society’s going to have to make a lot of big decisions in the coming years.Print
- League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.