Yesterday was traumatic. Medical staff fought for the life of Danish International player Christian Eriksen after his apparent sudden cardiac arrest during play, all of it broadcast live to millions of viewers at home. It was probably the first time they had witnessed CPR administered in a real situation and it was clear that a well-known player might die before our eyes. A few hours later came the wonderful news that Christian had pulled through.
Athlete protection has become the hottest and most disputed topic in philosophy in the last year or so, which came as a surprise to me. The issue has produced the most passionate disputes among twitter philosophers that I’ve ever seen so I’m sure that those who really care about athlete safety will be all over this incident. It is clear that the best preparation and protocols were in place and, as far as I can tell, they succeeded. I am sure that there will be subsequent enquiries into the care the player received prior to playing. Does the sport do all it can to monitor cardiac health? Are the physical demands of modern football too severe?
Matters of athlete protection also applied to Eriksen’s teammates. The story we received was that it was their decision to play the rest of the game, after a break of almost two hours. But were their best interests served? If it was traumatic for us at home, imagine how much more so it was for those young men, witnessing at such close quarters a personal friend almost die, playing the same sport that they are expected to continue playing. After the restart, they were clearly not at their best. At elite level, you cannot afford even a 5% drop in your game. A couple of individual mistakes saw them lose the game to Finland 1-0.
Sport frequently promotes bravery and heroism as virtues. I see them also as sometimes unhelpful and unhealthy masculine values. When I witnessed my father’s cardiac arrest, I did not get the help I should have in dealing with the trauma. A few weeks after he died, I was scheduled to give a talk at Birmingham University and did not want to cancel. I pushed on, but it went very badly. I couldn’t think of philosophy at that time. I wish that someone had advised me to take time out, not to be brave but to accept and respect my own vulnerability in the situation. More recently, I repeated the same mistake when my mother died. I didn’t ask for help and was back at work the day after the funeral. Someone told me to be strong. That was terrible advice.
I’m sure those Danish players were under no direct pressure to finish the match. Values can guide our actions in indirect ways, though. Sport is full of fantastic stories of victories in adversity, of winning it for a stricken teammate, of proving your worth when the chips are down. But yesterday was an ordeal that will stay with them for life and I do not think that playing out a defeat really helped them process that trauma. Nor would a victory have been much better. We need a sport that recognises, first and foremost, that it is played by human beings who, like everyone else, sometimes need our care. Someone should have told them not to play, to put themselves first, to be with their friends and families, to acknowledge their vulnerability, to be all the things an athlete is not supposed to be but a person undoubtedly is. Bravery and independence can take us only so far in these situations.