When 29-year-old Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen suddenly collapsed while playing against Finland at the 2020 European Football Championship, some professional players were provoked to protest against the overloaded competitive schedules of many footballers.

For a millisecond, Copenhagen’s Parken stadium fell silent in the 42nd minute of the Denmark-Finland match, when Christian Eriksen fell to the ground. His teammates signalled the emergency team and, in a few seconds, formed a protective shield around the fallen player. The emergency response team rushed to the athlete and began resuscitation and defibrillation procedures. Eriksen was taken off the field on a stretcher and the match was suspended. Eriksen’s life partner, Sabrina Kvist Jensen, went onto the field, convinced that the father of her two children had died. Fortunately, the players of the Danish team assured her that Eriksen was alive.

“His condition is stable and he continues to be hospitalised for further examination”, Danish Football Association officials said in a statement the next day. The Danish national team doctor, Martin Boesen, later said: “We don’t have an explanation to why it happened… He was gone. We did cardiac resuscitation, it was a cardiac arrest. How close were we to losing him? I don’t know, but we got him back after one defib [defibrillation] so that’s quite fast. The examinations that have been done so far look fine.”

Christian Erikssen. Did the show really have to go on?

Transported to Rigshospitalet, Christian Eriksen was stabilized and, one hour after the incident, the Danish Football Association and UEFA reported that the player was awake. The match was resumed the same evening, without Eriksen, and ended with the defeat of the Danish team. The coach of the losing team, Kasper Hjulmand—who had initially announced that Eriksen wanted them to carry on: “We have to see if we can gather ourselves and go out and play for Christian”—later regretted the decision to resume the match.

Captain Kjaer was replaced in the 63rd minute, and the technician explained the decision saying that “Kjaer was very, very touched. They [Kjaer and Eriksen] are very good friends. He wanted to try continue playing, but it was impossible. Feelings overwhelmed him. It is totally understandable.”

UEFA officials asked the players if they wanted to continue the match right away (after learning that Eriksen was stable) or the next day at noon. “Looking at it now, I think it was the wrong thing to ask the players to choose between these scenarios. They were not sure if they had lost their best friend. I have a sense that we shouldn’t have played. It’s a feeling I have, we should have gone on the bus and go back home. It was a tough decision. Players had to make a decision, I know it’s difficult, but I have a sense it was wrong,” Hjulmand said.

Danish coach Michael Laudrup, a former football player, is convinced that “when such things happen, you are in the throes of your emotions, and you do not have the capacity and oversight to make important decisions. There must be someone who says ‘now we’re going to do this, and now we stop here.’ They were given a choice that is not a choice—play tonight, or play tomorrow at 12. I think that, I’m sorry, but that is not a choice.”

UEFA has been criticized for deciding to resume the game so quickly. Former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel has accused UEFA officials of a lack of empathy: “They should have shown a little bit of compassion, and they didn’t.”

Other athletes have seen in UEFA’s attitude a continuation of a toxic philosophy, which has been regularly felt in sports arenas in recent years. Bosnian goalkeeper Asmir Begovic believes that Christian Eriksen’s accident was caused by the overloaded schedule that many athletes have to follow and finds that this tendency raises a red flag regarding other sad incidents that could occur.

“The health and wellbeing of players has long been ignored,” Begovic tweeted. “Shoving more and more games in more condensed periods will only lead to bigger health issues for players. Let’s hope the people in power will take notice at some point.”

A busy schedule means not only physical overload, but for many players it also means the abuse of anti-inflammatory drugs. A study conducted by the former head of the International Football Federation (FIFA), Jiri Dvorak, and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that no less than 60% of the footballers who participated in FIFA tournaments between 2002 and 2014 took at least one nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug and about 40% reported taking an anti-inflammatory drug before each game. Although medically these drugs have no benefits for athletes (the contrary is true), many athletes have reported that they have been instructed by doctors to take anti-inflammatory drugs as a method of prevention, or as treatment, for muscle pain.

The tightening of the working conditions of professional footballers only adds a darker shade to the bleak picture of the sports environment, whose negative characters constantly seem to be the professional sports associations and their bad decisions, which have long-term consequences. This picture most often remains hidden from the eyes of fans. However, even when details of it are seen by the general public, efforts to remedy the situation are rather anaemic.

Christian Erikson’s heart attack and Concussion

In 2002, American football player Michael Lewis Webster died of a heart attack at just 50 years old. After his death, pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu examined brain tissue samples from Mike and eight other former players in the National Football League (NFL), and the results of his analysis caused a hurricane of controversy in the sports industry.

In all nine players, Dr Omalu observed brain injuries similar to those encountered in Alzheimer’s patients or boxers with “pugilistic dementia.” Post-mortem, Mike Webster was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease acquired from the repeated blows to the head the football player had taken throughout his career. The NFL ignored these results for a time, until 2009, when another player, dead at the age of 26 this time, was diagnosed with the same disease as Mike Webster and his colleagues.

When the discovery broke out in a national scandal, Webster’s family sued the League. The former footballer had spent the last years of his life with amnesia and in a terrible physical condition. He lived in a truck and was cared for by his teenage son. Seventeen years after Webster’s death, in 2019 (the most recent year we could find data on), the NFL is still challenging a judge’s decision to compensate the family for the suffering endured in the last years of the athlete’s life.

The true story of Dr Omalu’s discovery was cinematically portrayed in the film Concussion, starring Will Smith.

The disease he discovered and which earned him public recognition, also caused a stream of death threats against Dr Omalu. Under immense pressure, Omalu said that what helped him continue in his efforts was his faith; a faith, he says, that comes with his love of science. “Faith and science go together,” he said in an interview with the Religion News Service. “They are not antagonistic to each other. There is the humanity of science. Science seeks the truth. Faith seeks the truth. So there is a commonality between science and faith. I think the faith community is a very powerful agent of change, agent of information, education, and enlightenment,” the doctor said, before adding that he is “not anti-football.”

Christian Eriksen does not play alone: the commercialists

The problem does not seem, of course, to lie in the sport itself, but in its commercialisation. This has been highlighted again and again by various scandals regarding major sporting leagues, and what aggravates it is that, on many occasions, major associations’ officials have been silent for years, perpetuating abuse through their complicity. Another resonant case was that of Larry Nassar, the former doctor of USA Gymnastics, convicted in 2018 for molesting at least 250 girls and young women, many of them Olympic gymnasts, given that he himself pleaded guilty to ten charges. According to research, Nassar did what he pleased, unbothered, from 1992 up until 2015, when USA Gymnastics severed ties with him, “after learning of athlete concerns.”

The athletes then accused the leaders of USA Gymnastics of complicit negligence, while also bringing back older accusations against the Romanian-Hungarian coaches Martha and Bela Karolyi. Top gymnasts such as Kristie Phillips, Erica Stokes, and Dominique Moceanu had previously talked about the difficult physical-emotional climate in which training took place (see the Pretty Girls in Pretty Boxes book). However, recent allegations also call out the cover up of doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse, in addition to highly controversial strategies for motivation and performance training.

Now that we know…

“As the new season arrives we embrace the attitude ‘Let the games commence’ and contemplate new rounds of physical suffering—torn hamstrings or menisci, stress fractures, and concussions or worse—from the comfort of our [lions’] dens and living room sofas. We probably do not think of ourselves as Romans consuming barbarity in the ancient Colosseum. Many of us may have never really processed the price of player injuries,” American pastor Tim Ponder wrote in 2014. How did this description come to apply so well to sports fans, who, in the end, love their sports idols and would never wish them harm?

The point we have reached is so complex that retracing our steps is nearly impossible. Sport delights and inspires the public, serving as an implied guarantee that those peaks that athletes reach are the peaks that we, ordinary people, could reach if we dedicated ourselves enough. In this sense, sport exists for the good of society.

But this good should never involve forcing athletes to be reduced to bone and muscle robots that move in a certain predetermined way, to the mechanical satisfaction of the crowd. The true good of sport stems only from balance assumed on all levels; from fair play. The definition of fair play should be much broader than it currently is. Unfortunately, when entire networks of people depend financially on the sporting performance of a select few and their ability to deliver entertainment to the public, this much-needed fair play is likely to remain a fairy tale.

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.