Mizzou Player’s Death Demands We Reconsider Sport’s Machismo

By Bryan Burwell
Updated: August 29, 2005

Aaron O'Neal Pose

ST. LOUIS — We all know the rules of the game. Be a man. Don’t wimp out. Cowboy up. Don’t be a baby. Be strong. Above all else, never let them see you sweat. These are the undisputed commandments of athletic machismo that have defined nearly every ordinary and extraordinary athletic life since they began keeping score.

You gotta play hurt.

Unless you’ve experienced the confusing emotional conflict generated by this sort of delightful torture and exhilarating turmoil, it’s unlikely you’ll ever find much common sense or tangible value in any of this. From a distance, it all must seem like foolish masculine pride. But that just shows you how much you know, because nowadays, girls wanna play hurt, too.

Anyone who’s ever played a game understands that sports are designed to push you to the edge of athletic possibility. No pain; no gain. An athlete’s life sometimes dances on a line between sanity and lunacy, and I ought to know, because I’m a product of this mentality.

I played on bad knees and torn hamstrings. I ran up steep hills in the sweltering August heat until my thigh muscles felt like they would explode. I’ve also been on my hands and knees in the grass and gravel near a sticky-hot running track, horribly ill, as my body overheated like a seized-up old car engine.

But I was a survivor of the dark ages of athletic training, where they pumped salt pills down your throat and foolishly rationed water as a reward, not a necessity.

We’re supposed to know better now. We’re supposed to know better because every summer on far too many practice fields we’re forced to come to terms with the lunacy of this athletic machismo.

So why isn’t anyone learning?

As more details surface about the circumstances leading to the death of Missouri football player Aaron O’Neal, you have to wonder whether the policies and attitudes of Mizzou’s medical and athletic training staff are more reflective of the dark ages of sports training.

According to interviews and notes from the Boone County medical examiner’s investigation into the death of the 19-year-old Parkway North graduate on July 12, when he collapsed after a voluntary workout, there were moments when Mizzou’s medical and athletic training staff chose to do nothing, or next to nothing, when O’Neal appeared to be in obvious physical stress.

They never examined him on the field. The only on-field “care” he received was when a teammate poured water on O’Neal’s head because he appeared to be exhausted. As soon as that happened, an unnamed coach said “not to baby him.”

After the workout, when O’Neal told an assistant strength-and-conditioning coach that he was dizzy and his vision was blurred, the coach asked another player to take O’Neal to the locker room, although the coach had said that O’Neal “looked like a flower wilting.”

The more I read through the reports, the more I kept wondering why there was inaction. In this age when everyone has a cell phone, and there were telephones in the stadium training area, why didn’t the medical and athletic training staffs follow the athletic department emergency action plan and call 911 when O’Neal began crawling on the ground and complained of blurred vision and dizziness?

I’ve talked to several physicians over the past few days, and they all shared a few common observations. Because of the rare case of meningitis that ultimately killed O’Neal, it’s difficult to know whether someone would have made a proper diagnosis in time even if O’Neal had been taken to the hospital right away.

Yet of this they were certain: Whatever chance of survival O’Neal had, the superior environment for survival would have been the hospital emergency room, not the football locker room or a pickup truck.

We don’t get any foolish pleasure from raising these questions. And despite the mindless ramblings of the sad little conspiracy theorists and get-a-life cretins who seem convinced that the Post-Dispatch is out to take down the Mizzou athletic department, we’re not trying to make a bad situation worse.

We’re trying to make sure no one else dies and this sad story never happens again.