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Sports Injury Epidemic: Is Gain Worth the Pain?

May 5th, 2018 · No Comments · Baseball, Football, NBA, NFL, Rugby, soccer

Sports injuries have become a “thing”. Seemingly not a day goes by without some fairly prominent athlete going down with a prominent injury.

I remember when none of us were quite sure what an oblique was, but straining/tearing it would put a guy on the shelf for weeks.

Those were the good old days.

Now we read about issues like thoracic outlet syndrome and grapple with something called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) that destroys the brain of some athletes.

As time goes by, I find myself wondering if playing professional sports is worth the inevitable injuries. Talking any team sport.

Most of us see injuries as something that reduces the chance of our teams making the playoffs … and perhaps as an event that interferes with our fantasy teams.

But that injury is a calamity for the player, instantly degrading his earning power (see: Isaiah Thomas), in addition to leaving him writhing on the field of play while everyone stares.

I will never forget a comment made by Dennis Harrah, Los Angeles Rams lineman, four-plus decades ago about his fear of a major injury during a game. “I don’t want to be out there rolling around like a dead dog.”

Becoming a spectacle is a sort of humiliation on top of the agony of a suddenly snapped ligament or broken bone. And, it is becoming clear, that the injury doesn’t ever really go away. It can be tamed for a time, in an athlete’s youth, but arthritis is almost sure to visit the site within a decade or two, and some guys end up like Phil Jackson, who can barely walk, thanks to a long NBA career.

Let’s review:

Baseball pitchers are nearly assured of needing reconstructive surgery in their shoulder/elbows. It is accepted now as what happens to all of them. Which is followed by a long and perhaps painful rehab. The rest of us shrug and make a mental note to jump ahead to next season (hello, Julio Urias!), when the guy might be back. We don’t have a moment to spare plotting the long and painful “recovery” period. And it isn’t only pitchers who are at risk. Everyone who gets into the batter’s box stands a good chance of broken bones in his hand if he is hit by a pitch, and most guys probably get hit in the head by a pitched ball at least once in their careers. Also, balls are being hit so hard now that pitchers and corner infielders are not always able to protect themselves, and get hit in the head or face. Someone will die and probably in the near future. Ray Chapman is going to have company.

Basketball players already are genetic oddities because they are 6-foot-6 and up, and that height tends to be only semi-supported by twig-like legs that snap fairly easily. Anyone who saw Paul George’s compound fracture … well, you don’t want to see it again. Then there are knees exploding, and big men with fragile feet, and ankles rolled (which these days will generally get a guy a few days off … when the rest of us would be on crutches or in bed). Talk to any veteran, and you can be sure he has some lengthy pre/post-game regimen just to be able to go on the court. Kobe Bryant, in his 30s, went through a lot of ice.

Hockey is all about injuries, with fans waiting avidly for the next guy to be slammed into the plexiglass or dumped on the ice, with players wondering when the last of their incisors will be knocked out. (Every NHL team has a dentist.) Not at all sure hockey guys acknowledge most of their concussions. And, don’t forget, NHL “injury reports” get no more specific than “upper” or “lower” body. Why? Because opponents will attack that wounded body part. This is the sport (even more than football) where injured players are expected to tape up whatever it is that is causing them agony and get out and take regular shifts.

Soccer players have an excellent chance of blowing a knee, tearing up an ankle or snapping an Achilles (see: Laurent Koscielny, the other night.) Evidence is mounting that heading a ball kills brain cells, and pro veterans have headed a ball thousands and thousands of times, beginning in childhood. Landon Donovan, the former U.S. and Major League Soccer standout, perhaps was typical among veterans in going through a long regimen before and after every practice or game, and he was generally known as a guy who “didn’t get injured much”. In fact, he needed daily attention to play — and this was when he was maybe 28. I know this because more than once I waited up to two hours, during which he received treatment, before I was able to interview him.

And then there is the worst of all (at least until rugby begins owning up to its injury situation), American football. Not only are most contracts not guaranteed, every joint and every bone is at risk in every game. And this is the sport where guys also can be exposed to a torn biceps or pectoral, injuries rare in other sports. And then there are the head injuries, which the game still can’t prevent and are yielding a bounty of examples of brain degradation and CET concerns. Which could lead to the end of the sport as we know it.

I have one overarching theory why injuries seem to have become epidemic:

Every game is being played at a higher rate of speed, often by bigger players, than ever before.

Soccer players put in 6-7 miles in the typical first-division soccer game, and much of it is sprinting (and it is all documented by metrics) and expected from players. Go back and look at soccer on tape in the 1990s, which is not long ago, and it looks like half the guys are a walking for most of the match and most of the rest of the players are jogging. Now? Mad dashes from one end of the pitch to the other. Over and over. And maybe three days later, do it again and hope your ligaments hold up.

NFL players are bigger than ever but they are also faster, which leads to more violent collisions. Same deal with basketball. Even baseball has its own hard-harder-hardest compulsion — whether it is throwing or hitting. Swing/throw as hard as you can — till something breaks.

The human body clearly was not made to stand up to the punishment regularly doled out in modern sports.

Predictably, young athletes eagerly embrace professional careers and the attention and money that is part of it … without giving much thought to injuries sure to follow. It is hard for any of us, but particularly hard for highly trained athletes, to project to the future, when arthritis takes root at the site of old injuries and when brain damage kicks in.

It is a high price to pay for a few seasons in the limelight. I am increasingly doubtful it is worth it.

 

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