Ten years ago I attended an NFL training camp on the credentials of a website I used to do some writing for, and it really struck me to see up close and personal the toll that this kind of entertainment has on the athletes' bodies. We've all read the stories and seen the TV segments about concussions, knee injuries, or some retired athlete who is wheelchair bound by arthritis at age 43. We know, but we don't see it very much. It was revealing to see the scars, the constant injections (usually cortisone), the hematomas, the handfuls of painkillers morning and night, the creaky knees, and the "bell ringers" (i.e., concussions, i.e., traumatic brain injury). I've seen 25 year old men who need help getting in and out of a bathtub and yet perform at an elite level during games, thanks in no small part to the miracles of the pharmaceutical industry.
I don't need to re-hash the whole "tough guy" culture of sports here; needless to say these guys are under relentless pressure to play hurt. That said, everyone has a line. There is a point – torn muscles, blown ligaments, severe concussions – where that guy simply isn't going out on the field/pitch/ice again. Even the teams and team doctors have a limit, a point at which their long-term interests dictate that the injured should rest rather than play.
At least I like to think that line exists.
In the recent Stanley Cup Finals – those who follow G&T on Facebook know that my devotion to hockey borders on troubling – here is a brief selection of injuries that did not manage to keep players off the ice:
-Bryan Bickell, CHicago: Grade II knee sprain
-Marian Hossa, Chicago: Crushed vertebra in lower back, total numbness in right leg
-Michal Handzus, Chicago: Broken wrist, torn medial collateral ligament in knee
-Patrice Bergeron, Boston: broken ribs, torn chest cartilage, punctured lung, separated shoulder
-Jonathan Toews, Chicago: Concussion
Look at that list. Most of us could not get out of bed or walk around our kitchen with injuries of that type. Bergeron's injuries look like the aftermath of a typical car accident. In light of his decision to go out on the ice for (what turned out to be) the decisive Game 6, I'm not the only person asking…dude, where's the line? You'd think someone would say, "Gee Patrice, we know you're quite the competitor and all, but…maybe sit this one out. You know, with that hole in your lung."
Instead, all of these guys played injured. Visibly injured, in the cases of Hossa, Bergeron, and Bickell. I attended Game 2 and the entire stadium buzzed about something being obviously wrong with Bickell. Hossa missed one game and then returned to (by his own admission) limp around the ice and accomplish none of his usual feats. And Bergeron…before Game 6 the cameras zoomed in on him during warmups while the commentators spoke admiringly of his toughness. My dad and I, watching at home, immediately commented on how "not right" he looked. He moved around and flipped pucks at the net, but on the closeups I recognized immediately that dull, gauzy look of a man full of as many painkillers as the doctors could give him without rendering him unconscious. And so he zombie-skated through 17 largely ineffective minutes of playing time during the game.
Why? Why do they do this? Why do we pat them on the back for doing it? There has to be a point at which the players, coaches, doctors, etc. recognize that it's not worth it. Not the Super Bowl, not the Stanley Cup, not the Olympics…nothing. If nothing else, they should be persuaded that seriously injured, highly medicated players tend to accomplish very little in a competitive setting.
My favorite player to talk to at training camp came from a wealthy family, attended only the best schools, and was much more philosophical than the average player. I once asked him if he worried about the toll that football would take on his body. He thought for a minute and then said, "When I entered the league I measured 6'6". In my physical the other day, I was 6'4"." We sat there in silence for about 10 minutes. I couldn't think of a thing to say.