Column: Throwing some cold water on the Ice Bucket Challenge

NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Brian Vickers participates in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge following a practice session at Michigan International Speedway on Saturday.
(Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

I am way late to the party on this Ice Bucket Challenge thing that is sweeping the country.

Quite frankly, I hadn’t paid much attention. When you write about sports, you tend to turn off your awareness button the moment somebody dumps water or Gatorade on somebody’s else’s head. Yawn.

My daily challenge is to avoid those cliches, to see past them or around them. Sports has become a breeding ground for the trite and shallow. The next time I ask an athlete after a game how he or she “feels,” or ask them to “talk about” something, shoot me.

This year, one goal is to find a football player who doesn’t do some kind of dance in the end zone or point to the heavens as if God actually cares, or beat his chest until he is sure he will get on ESPN. When I find him, he’s a story.

It’s a game, not a social commentary or a religious revelation.


So along comes this Ice Bucket Challenge, and I am conflicted.

For those of you who are even slower than I at spotting things that “go viral,” this Ice Bucket Challenge began a few years ago and picked up momentum this year through the story of former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates. Frates is 29 and has been found to have one of the ugliest diseases in existence: Lou Gehrig’s disease, known best by its initials, ALS, which stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Once he got the diagnosis, Frates did what any hard-charging athlete would do. He vowed to fight. Some friends vowed to help and adopted the previously attempted fundraising gimmick of challenging others to dump ice water on their heads, or make a donation to fight ALS. Or both.

Over the weekend, the ALS Assn. said that $13.3 million had been raised so far this year for ALS research. It also said that, in the same period last year, $1.7 million was raised.

There can be nothing negative about that. Except maybe a cold bucket of reality.

Lou Gehrig made his “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech 75 years ago. There could not have been a more high-profile person or moment. The Ice Bucket Challenge is promoted as “raising awareness.” There could be no greater awareness than Lou Gehrig.

You wonder if scientists, hunkered over test tubes in labs around the world, feel a need to have their awareness raised. They’ve been at this for at least 75 years, and we have yet to have any different score in this game.

Apologies here if I get less than giddy over millions of extra dollars coming in because people dump water on their heads. I have two problems with it.

First, I lost one of my best friends to this evil thing. I saw the deterioration of the body, the continuing sharpness of the mind and the total dissolution of hope. His name was John Rountree, and he has been gone for almost three years now. He was 65. I see film clips of Pete Frates. He is 29.

One could be the other, right down to the hesitant steps, then the slurred speech and soon the motorized wheelchair with the computer serving as the voice. ALS plays no favorites with age. It plays no favorites, period.

If, at this time next year, or a few years down the line, there is an ALS breakthrough and it is traceable, even minutely, to the money raised through this Internet furor, I will write 17 columns praising the human spirit and its current technological driver.

But at the moment, pouring water on our heads, or each other’s, seems a slightly distasteful disconnect to the reality of ALS.

Certainly and hopefully, it is not the intention of people such as LeBron James or Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer or Jimmy Fallon — or the thousands of other celebrity types who have done this and got huge Internet attention — to further their own brand.

Still, I wish more had said, when challenged, that pouring water on heads, with its accompanying attention-grabbing and frivolity, didn’t quite mesh with the cause. ALS isn’t the least bit funny.

A few did, including the president of the United States.

The good news is that the money will keep the researchers researching. The bad news is that $13 million probably doesn’t buy as many test tubes as it used to.

The sad news is that we seem to need a viral Internet event to stir us up. And there are so many, disappearing just as fast as they arrive. If this one doesn’t work, lots of people have gotten lots of attention and written big checks that they should have written in private.

This too shall pass, even though our current look-at-me era probably won’t. It’s kind of a no-harm, no-foul, good-try thing.

My friend John Rountree is up there somewhere, furrowing his brow, shaking his head and going to find Gehrig to tell him that, while his “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” was great rhetoric and certainly heartfelt, it wasn’t reality.

Kind of like the Ice Bucket Challenge.