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The sacrifice for the spectacle

It’s a topic professional athletes don’t often like to discuss, and certainly never complain about. It’s the cruel and somewhat terrifying reality of the life of a professional athlete, competing on a weekly basis knowing that the difference between a great day and the worst day of their life can be only a matter of millimetres.

It’s a sobering thought, but the incidents of the past few months have reminded us of the fragility of athletes and the fact that as dramatic as it may sound, every time they take the field they are literally putting their lives at risk.

Many will say they are living the dream and that the odds are so low that this is being dramatic, however this is not a sob story but rather an appreciation of the sacrifices that elite athletes make to provide the spectacle we all love.

Players, particularly within our game, are well compensated for their craft and would not change their profession for the world. They are the biggest fans of the sport and knew coming into the game that with their career choice comes physical setbacks, many of which won’t be fully realised until later in their lives. However for many of us, players and fans alike, this can often be forgotten and it takes a tragic event to remind us how very real these dangers can be.

The horrific circumstances of NRL player Alex McKinnon, who suffered serious spinal damage in an on-field incident against the Melbourne Storm last month, saw an outcry from players across a range of sporting codes (including AFL) which showed the brotherhood that exists amongst elite sportspeople and in many ways may be because deep down they respect and understand this inherent danger and the fact this could so easily have been them.

A similar situation has occurred at a lower level of our own game recently, with former Geelong VFL player Casey Tutungi becoming a quadriplegic whilst playing for South Barwon in 2013, in what was quite an innocuous incident. Over the weekend there were also reports of a small number of games played at suburban level being called off due to players suffering serious neck injuries.

We all have heard the saying ‘Sport isn’t life and death.’ It’s often a bit of a throw away line, however as we have seen in other sports  there are cases where sport is most certainly a matter of life and death.

In November last year Australian Sarah Teelow, a world-champion Australian water-skier, died after a fall on the water. Similarly, in 2012, Sarah Burke – a Canadian freestyle skier – also passed away as a result of injuries sustained in a crash during a training run.

These athletes were at the top of their game and pushed the limits, which is what we demand of all players and particularly within our game where the demands for bravery are so deeply engrained in our sport that the career of a player can be derailed if for one moment they are considered ‘soft’ at a contest.

However this notion of bravery is being slightly modified, with even the greats of the game, such as former North Melbourne champion Wayne Carey, beginning to reassess what courage means in recent years.

The reality is that even with these tragic reminders, it’s in an athlete’s DNA to march where others fear to tread. Brown will run back into packs, Selwood will burrow in and Riewoldt will fly high, but it is times like this that we are reminded that while these players will never complain they deserve recognition for the spectacle they put on each week and the sacrifice they make for the good of the game.