Aug. 3, 1943. General George Patton slaps an army private who is in hospital recovering from battle fatigue and accuses him of being a coward.
Aug. 1, 2001. Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer collapses after a practice with a core body temperature of 108 F. Stringer never recovers consciousness and dies early on the morning of Aug. 2.
Although Stringer died almost exactly 58 years after George Patton made physical weakness a character flaw, it seems the spirit that motivated Patton is alive, well and kicking its heels up with youthful vigour. The "No Pain, No Gain" mentality has persisted and since 1995, no less than 18 high school and college football players have died in its name.
Media reports indicate that before he collapsed, Stringer vomited three times. However, media reports have not indicated whether or not he kept going after the first upchuck because he wanted to or because he was urged to. Regardless--I was an athlete at the upper levels of competition for 10 years and I remember well the consequences of quitting a practice due to injury. Coaches would scowl and teammates would mutter resentfully and glower. Unless you had actually lost a limb, the injury wasn't real enough to leave the workout and you were shunned and spurned as a disgrace to the team.
So, I wasn't at all surprised to read that Stringer didn't sit down after vomiting the first time. I wasn't surprised to hear that none of the team trainers or athletic therapists made him take a seat in the shade to cool down for a while. I wasn't surprised to read that no one sent him for medical attention after he vomited the second time. And, I wasn't surprised to read that he vomited a third time and finally collapsed. But, I would be surprised if a coach or athlete tried to say this was a workout worth dying for.
When will it stop? After Stringer's death, University of Texas quarterback Chris Simms spoke for athletes everywhere when he said he knew what had pushed Stringer to continue the strenuous exercise in the hot, humid climate.
"You want to show that you are going to sacrifice and go through what everybody else is going through," said Simms. "You don't want to lose an edge, so you push yourself as hard as you can."
There's working through discomfort for the purposes of improving performance, and then there's risking life and limb. If an athlete knows the difference, why should a coach or another athlete presume to tell them differently?
After four years of studying exercise physiology, I've seen one truth emerge with startling clarity: although the human body is in many respects surprisingly sturdy, it is finite. And each of us has only one. Yet, despite this rather trenchant point, the pressure remains on athletes to keep working until the physiological damage is irreparable.
So, I'm not surprised that Korey Stringer is dead. It takes way more guts to sit out on the bench than to keep practising, but unfortunately, the price for bone-headed stupidity is far higher. And until the George Pattons of the world get slapped around a little in return, athletes will continue to pay.