NPF: MAYBE CALL IT A DAY

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.

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40 Responses to “NPF: MAYBE CALL IT A DAY”

  1. Mike Says:

    "Why? Why do they do this?"

    You answered your own question:
    "those who follow G&T on Facebook know that my devotion to hockey borders on troubling"

    Money, in particular salaries derived from ad money. The players are subject to the same market trap the rest of us are in. There's only so many spots and no prize for second place. So in this case the purse goes to the person most willing to destroy themselves.

  2. ConcernedCitizen Says:

    Not to "rehash the 'tough guy' culture of sports here," but Michal Handzus' broken wrist didn't seem to deter him from hefting the Stanley Cup and yelling with joy after Game 6. Same goes for his injured teammates. I agree that these sports tend to destroy players' bodies (football more so than hockey over the long run) but, ultimately, it's a form of personal destruction. Their choice.

    By the way, super jealous you got to go to Game 2, even though the Hawks lost that one.

  3. LK Says:

    I'm not so sure this qualifies as NPF…

  4. Xynzee Says:

    I couldn't help but think about what happens to racing dogs at the end of their "careers" after reading this. How much different are they in a philosophical sense? Especially to the owners.

    What Mike said.
    There's not much difference between there's guys and some schmuck working with solvent based glues in a furniture factory. They're both at risk of being sacked for any reason. So why do people come in when they're sick even if they

  5. Xynzee Says:

    I couldn't help but think about what happens to racing dogs at the end of their "careers" after reading this. How much different are they in a philosophical sense? Especially to the owners.

    What Mike said.
    There's not much difference between there's guys and some schmuck working with solvent based glues in a furniture factory. They're both at risk of being sacked for any reason. So why do people come in when they're sick even if they have sick days. Don't want to be seen as slack do they? In the end the company will show the same amount of loyalty whether you play hurt or not. You may survive a bit longer, but eventually you'll be replaced. Why do you think there was the big outcry against Free Agents back in the day.

    The majority of players have about as many choices after their careers finish as someone sacked from Taco Bell. Sure they may be better cashed up than a Taco Bell employee, but how many of them:
    a) have long careers
    b) have good financial management skills
    c) haven't picked up a tick or 6 in an agent, accountant or hangers on who bleed them dry
    d) any combination of above

    So yeah, I'd probably risk it and push through the pain too.

  6. Talisker Says:

    I disagree with Mike. Sure, money's part of it. But when I did martial arts, I saw people with really scary injuries go out and compete anyway. They got no fame and glory beyond a very small circle of people, and definitely no money. Personal satisfaction and the respect of their peers was enough for them.

    If nothing else, they should be persuaded that seriously injured, highly medicated players tend to accomplish very little in a competitive setting.

    Sports are all about morale. At the end of the movie El Cid, the title character rides into battle with a terrible wound. The very sight of him strapped on a horse and wearing his armour terrifies the enemy and El Cid's side wins, even though he died of his injury before the battle was over. Sure, Nameless Rookie might be able to skate and shoot a lot better than an injured and doped-up Bergeron, but the other team fear and respect Bergeron much more.

    I imagine such is the reasoning. But there's still a point when even the most famous and intimidating player in the world needs to take a break.

    Last NFL season there was the case of RG3, the Redskins quarterback, who was sent into a playoff game with some sort of elaborate cyborg-like brace on his leg. He was limping and in obvious pain. I know a number of Redskins fans, and at that point every one of them was pleading with the TV for RG3 to stop. Of course he stayed on the field until he had to be carried off. Even if he's able to play again, his leg's never going to be the same.

    If the leagues actually cared about this, they could employ independent doctors who would have to certify players as fit to go on the field. Yeah, I'm sure that'll happen really soon.

  7. Talisker Says:

    @Xynzee: Just for the record, racing greyhounds retire by the age of 5 and make excellent family pets. Dog racing groups make much more of an effort to adopt out their retired dogs than they once did.

  8. Xynzee Says:

    @Talisker: I know people who've taken in retired grey hounds. Sadly, there are those who aren't so kind to their losers and infirm. Now that I've got some room, that may be great idea for me. Just need to ensure they don't get out. I'd hate for them to chase roos.

    Sorry about the double post earlier. New phone, and the interface and I haven't made friends yet. :-/

  9. Middle Seaman Says:

    Talisker makes several excellent points. Fame and glory fail to explain a widely found behavior shared by athletes of different cultures, races, religions, etc.

    Injury and illness project weakness and drawbacks in many societies. The mentally ill were hidden by families. Illness, in many cases, magically becomes invisible.

    Add to that the somewhat related winning/losing glasses so often employed by societies to almost everything and you have a decent explanation for some of professional sports abuses.

  10. RosiesDad Says:

    @Talisker: Most greyhounds are taken off the track by 5 because they are no longer competitive and will be of no use as breeding stock. The decision making process over any greyhound's track career is managed with the same level of compassion as deciding which pigs go to the slaughterhouse tomorrow. IOW, it's a 100% economic decision.

    Yes, many are taken into rescue programs, neutered and placed in homes. And many others are not.

    I have a number of greyhounds in my practice and have treated well over 100 as patients in my couple of decades as a veterinarian. I've seen them come through rescue with all their parts, and missing some of their parts (amputees missing one or more toes are common; many have healed fractures that may or may not have been treated appropriately at the time of injury; a few came through as 3-legged dogs). As far as temperament goes, they are a mixed bag. Some are docile, some are anxious, some have strong prey drive (the are trained to chase that fake rabbit, right?) and cannot live with other animals in their home (other dogs, cats, etc.) for fear they would attack/kill them. Most of the personality disorders have been affected/exacerbated by lack of socialization at a young age.

    Where greyhounds differ from people (as a basis of comparison) is that the dogs have no say in whether they run or not. If they are fast, they run. If they are not fast, they don't.

    If this is what we do to human athletes as they grind through the process from Pop Warner to the pro's, we ought to stop now. Yes, RG3 did go back out on the field with an injured knee and injured himself further. And yes, he went back out because HE wanted to and because he made himself unavailable to the team doctor for appropriate evaluation before returning to the huddle. (Poor judgment by a guy who seems to be an otherwise pretty bright kid.) But that lack of judgment is clearly the result of an evolution over his career as an athlete: Leave it all on the field until you are no longer able? That's not the message kids should be getting as they grow up. Might make for marginally less entertaining Sunday TV but it might also make for fewer cripples when their playing days are over.

  11. c u n d gulag Says:

    Why do they do this?
    Well, all of 'em – every damn one of them – whether they know sports history or not, want to be Kirk Gibson.

    Playing for the LA Dodgers, Gibson was sitting out the first game of the World Series due to injuries.
    And then, when called upon, told his Manager he had ONE swing left in him, came crawling out of the dugout – and on that one swing, hit a walk-off Home Run in the bottom of the 9th.
    It was only the 1st game of the WS, but it was the defining moment, and the Oakland A's never recovered.

    Or they want to be Willis Reed in Game 7 of the NBA championship series.
    He was also hurt badly, and wasn't expected to play.
    But he participated in the pre-game shoot-around, and was hitting a lot of his shots.
    And then, he was out on the floor as the game started, hit a few jumpers, and the LA Lakers were never the same after that.
    Just the thought of Reed. bravely coming back out to play at any moment, threw the Lakers off their stride – that, and Clyde had a game for the ages.

    The great ones do this, either hoping, despite their injuries, to summon some last bit of skill and luck and have that moment of greatness for the ages, or that their mere presence on the field of play, will cause the other team to lose.

    Growing up, every kid who loves sports, male or female, imagines him/her-self in the last seconds of the championship game – hitting the last shot, knocking that ball over the wall, catching the game winning TD, or, whatever it takes to win in their favorite sport.

    Elite athletes are all just massively skilled kids, with huge ego's, living out the dreams they had, back when doing what they're doing now professionally, really was just a dream.

    And you ask, Ed, "Why do they do this?"
    Hell, if you had the skills, and the ego, wouldn't you?
    I sure as hell know I would.

  12. RosiesDad Says:

    @c u n d: Add Bill Buckner to that list but his injured ankles and subsequent failure to field a dribbling Mookie Wilson grounder left him persona non grata in Boston for decades.

  13. E* Says:

    And what about little Kerri Strug in the 1996 Olympics? Lands a gold-medal winning vault with two torn ligaments in the ankle. Who can watch that landing without shedding a tear?

    The audience LIVES for those moments.

  14. Talisker Says:

    @RosiesDad: Thanks for the info. I know a couple of people who've adopted ex-racing greyhounds and been very happy with them, but I understand the sport is still pretty cruel to the dogs.

    As for RG3, his lack of judgment is not an anomaly. Athletes have no objectivity whatsoever in this respect. I've seen martial artists risk permanent disability, for no reward but respect and admiration from a few dozen other martial artists. I can scarcely imagine what it's like when you get a stadium full of fans, millions of TV viewers, and untold riches in salary and endorsement fees.

    Someone needs to be able to tell them, "Enough. You're not going out there." At the moment it's left up to the coaches, but they aren't exactly objective either.

  15. Anonymouse Says:

    I agree with Mike and Xynzee: "There's not much difference between there's guys and some schmuck working with solvent based glues in a furniture factory. They're both at risk of being sacked for any reason." In the so-called 'right to work' states, an employee can be fired for any reason–including taking sick leave. In my 30 years in the career world, I've seen more than one employee come to work sick because there's just so much pressure to be productive. I've *been* that person who comes to work when they'd be better served at home in bed because the last thing you want to do is let management think you're a slacker.

  16. Anonymouse Says:

    @Rosie's dad; in my time fostering for a local rescue group, I've met people from the local greyhound rescue and met some of the greyhounds. To me, they were all shell-shocked. You're right; the dogs don't have any choice in whether or not they run, and many of them are just put down the moment they're not competitive.

  17. ladiesbane Says:

    Good points all, but please keep in mind that a lot of athletes don't have backup careers. We tend to scoff at money motive (pfft, filthy lucre!) and ask how much money does one man need? Let's just say that the more injuries you have, the more expensive your care will be, and your need for care will never end.

    Young immortals are also not known for their wise investment strategies and long term planning. Some exceptions, not the rule.

    Money (and what it buys, like food, shelter, and medicine) aside, consider the lack of purpose in the life of a human who has trained with single-minded intensity for one job since childhood. Take away that purpose, and you have a guy with nothing to distract him from the pain. (Hello, addiction!) Some make the transition gracefully but a lot don't. Not everyone wants to start a foundation, buy a franchise restaurant, or do anything but what he's been pouring himself into since childhood. Not everyone is coach material, either. Whatever a guy had before is what he has left, and it might not be much. You might keep playing, too.

    But then there is the love of the sport. A horse that loves to run will die with the saddle on. I understand the love but I try not to encourage it, y'know? The game always gets done with you before you get done with the game.

  18. Talisker Says:

    @ladiesbane: Yes, exactly. On a strictly rational cost/benefit calculation, pro athletes should be extremely cautious about risking a career-ending injury.

    But it's not about being rational. These people are intensely competitive and driven, otherwise they wouldn't have got to that level in the first place, and that's not something they can just switch off.

    Even "normal" training at an elite level involves a lot of physical pain, as you push yourself to your limits and beyond them. The line between that and recklessly endangering yourself is blurred, at best.

  19. Sally's Dad Says:

    I recently stumbled onto The Last Gladiators, a movie that mostly follows the career of Chris Nilan. It's a Must See for Hockey Fans.

    http://thelastgladiators.com/

  20. ladiesbane Says:

    Let's also keep in mind that most people who work physical jobs start before they have finished maturing and don't stop until they're forced to. They suffer a lot from it over the years, including serious long-term damage. Subsistence farming is another great one for dropping inches in height, particularly for women who bear children. Same crushed vertebrae, same grinding knees, same arthritis. TBI is another matter, of course. But desk jobbers can forget that most jobs in the world cause physical damage both cumulative and incidental, and we somehow think celebrity makes sports different from ditch digging in that regard.

    @Talisker: one of the reasons I appreciate martial arts that involve philosophy (not strictly punch-punch-kick sports gyms) is that it can teach things that are broadly useful in life. Being taught to apply your drive and focus to whatever you do is much more useful than "Football is Life — Nothing Else Matters". But it's more than competition for him. A football player with a bum ankle knows there are fifty fresh young bodies trying for his spot, and it's not just competition, it's survival — otherwise that bum ankle was for nothing.

    Once you get in the vicious cycle, it's hard to get out.

  21. Talisker Says:

    @ladiesbane: Yes, that was pretty much my point. For the martial arts scene I was in, almost everyone had non-physical day jobs. It wasn't about survival, fame or riches, and the glory on offer was minimal. But *even then*, people would push themselves insanely hard at grave risk to their long-term health and mobility.

    For a pro athlete who *is* being offered riches, fame and glory, and has no realistic fallback career, the pressure to get out there and play must be overwhelming.

  22. Simon Pure Says:

    "I attended Game 2 and the entire stadium buzzed…"

    Hockey is played in an arena. Sometimes it's played in a rink or field house or even a garden.

    Yes occasionally the NHL plays out door games at stadiums. But those are exceptions for sure.

    Good read though. Bergy is a monster.

  23. Steve in the ATL Says:

    On a plane recently I sat next to a former SEC and NFL star linebacker. He could barely get in and out of is seat. I read a few chapters of the book he is writing that he expects to "blow the lid off" the NFL and its drug problems. He said there was tons of pressure to play through the injuries and he, like many others including ESPN fellatee Brett Fahvre, got addicted to painkillers and then worse. The chapters I read were pretty gruesome.

  24. Denny Says:

    When I was in Grad school back in the 80's I was talking to one of the undergraduates in the department – she had been a competitive swimmer before a shoulder injury permanently sidelined her. She was telling me that a few years before then someone had done a survey of top caliber athletes and asked them the following question:

    "If you could take a pill or something that would absolutely guarantee you a gold medal in your sport in the next Olympic games, but with the also absolute certainty that in 5 years you would be dead would you take it"

    According to her something like 60 or 70% of the respondents said that they would take the pill.

  25. Doctor Rock Says:

    I agree with the exception of:

    "Not everyone wants to start a foundation, buy a franchise restaurant, or do anything but what he's been pouring himself into since childhood. Not everyone is coach material, either. Whatever a guy had before is what he has left, and it might not be much. You might keep playing, too."

    There are things that I, and everyone, do that we don't want to do, because we have to earn a living.

  26. jon Says:

    Some do leave. What makes Robert Smith (the running back, not the singer) retire when he "had a few years left"? Options. And he saw them.

    I think the skill set and the devotion it takes to get there is insane. My son has now played a year of competitive basketball, and he's about to enter high school. He's years behind already, but catching up on sports injuries. Foot fracture at fourteen! Same age as his shoe size! Love his competitiveness, but I hate the culture.

  27. Major Kong Says:

    This guy played in the NFL and now is one of our pilots. Interesting career change. Not sure where he built his hours. Probably flying for one of the regionals.

    http://www.nfl.com/player/scottdill/2500394/profile

    He's still a pretty big guy even though he's not the size he was in the NFL.

    I flew with him once on the 727. He was a First Officer and I was a Flight Engineer at the time. If you've ever seen a 727 cockpit, I sat sideways directly behind the First Officer. Scott was so big he was just about sitting in my lap.

  28. anori Says:

    @Denny:
    If I could take a pill that would guarantee I would write an amazing book that would win tons of awards and completely reshape my field, with the absolute certainty that I'd be dead in five years…I'd take that deal too.

  29. Xynzee Says:

    @Mjr: sounds like Bubba Smith in Police Academy.

  30. guttedleafsfan Says:

    Congrats Ed and thanks for a thrilling final series, Blackhawks.

    Must have been that amazing sex you guys were having all season that gave you the final boost.

    I agree with all above, and would add that in hockey,even more than other sports the players have almost no career choice.

    Example, recent #1 NBA pick (you know, Bennett the CANADIAN) did not even start playing basketball until his teens. Most NHLers were on skates soon after walking, on teams by preschool. Add to that the usual total family and community support and commitment, the early scouting. and
    the fact that even for the most inept of beer-league bumblers, the playing of hockey is highly addictive.

    Still, each generation produces its Drydens or at least its \tim Hortons

  31. guttedleafsfan Says:

    Add to last post,

    That TV station should NEVER have fired that girl for the "sexcessful" flub.
    Jeez and WTF????

  32. Death Panel Truck Says:

    @Denny: Robert Johnson (according to legend) made a deal with the Debbil, and recorded 29 incredible Delta blues songs before dying. If someone told me I could write the best novel the world has ever seen, and then die five years later, I'd … say no thanks, and write a less incredible book that sold in the low millions.

  33. Elle Says:

    @Denny: Robert Johnson (according to legend) made a deal with the Debbil, and recorded 29 incredible Delta blues songs before dying. If someone told me I could write the best novel the world has ever seen, and then die five years later, I'd … say no thanks, and write a less incredible book that sold in the low millions.

    Yeah, I've seen Supernatural. I know how those Crossroads Demon things work.

  34. Bitter Scribe Says:

    Some NFL player (wish I could remember his name) remarked that pro football players and prostitutes have something in common: They destroy their bodies for the pleasure of others.

  35. cromartie Says:

    A lot of you are entirely to enamored with external locus of control factors. A lot of us, hell most of us, when presented with the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of our chosen profession or hobby, particularly if it is perceived to be extremely competitive, would run over our own mothers to do it. It doesn't matter if there's a lot of money, or fame, or tv exposure or whatever, we are conditioned in Western society from a very young age that it only matters if you are the best, and that there is no such thing as good enough.

    And it persists in even the most menial positions for some people. Be the best, most productive coal miner, ditch digger or shit shoveler. If it's in our personality, we bear down and go after it. Because our self esteem will never be validated any other way.

    Pride goeth before the fall.

  36. guttedleafsfan Says:

    @Denny,

    Here's another one. Choose between a full scholarship to Harvard, or playing junior hockey in the thrilling metropolis of Rimouski, P.Q

    Hockey Achilles Nathan MacKinnon chose glory in Rimouski over length of days at Harvard.

  37. Xynzee Says:

    @Gutted: Gaspesians are truly a different breed, and anchored to the land. What can I say. :)

  38. guttedleafsfan Says:

    Xynzee,:

    Ah ouai! The call of blood from Peleus Crosby could not be denied!

  39. guttedleafsfan Says:

    It is offtopic but I was just thinking how silly it is, that pro athletes and especially hockey players, ever get married at the height of their careers. The greatest players in hockey know that they will retire by 40, by the mid-30s if they are unlucky with injuries, when they will still be in their prime and have money and time to devote to a wife and family and whatever new ventures they embark on. Mike Comrie did it right, of course he already had more money than his wife anyway.

    I hope to see the Crosby Bride Brigade revive and wither into Miss Havishams until he leaves the arena for the last time.

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