In the last couple of weeks, I've heard a lot about a lot of different football injuries. Philip Rivers played on one leg. LaDanian Tomlinson injured himself further playing in the AFC Championship. Nate Kaeding had a fractured plant leg when he kicked all four field goals at Foxborough. Half the speculation leading up to the Super Bowl was about Tom Brady's ankle. Now, someone has written a book about Kevin Everett's injury and amazing recovery.
It leads me to an interesting question: do we push the human body too hard in the name of sports? Is there a fine line between heroic, and simply reckless?
I've played sports all my life, and a good number of them. At last count, I've gone through baseball, football, basketball, hockey, bowling, golf and intramural dodgeball. I was never talented enough at any of the major sports to play on an actual team. My college didn't have major sports teams. I was captain of my college dodgeball team and of my high school bowling team, but those are hardly things that people take seriously. Despite this, I'll be the first to admit that I play extremely hard. You could interview all of the people I've ever competed against – they'll tell you the same thing. I might be a little crazy for yelling at a bowling ball, but I'm always extremely competitive.
The difference is that I've never been seriously injured while playing sports. I've been beaten up, battered, scratched, gouged, and actually momentarily knocked out, but I've never broken a body part or gotten a concussion or suffered dementia. I've never been plowed into by a three-hundred-plus-pound defensive lineman or taken a baseball to the head. I can't imagine to begin what any of those things feels like. I think if Jamal Williams, all 300-whatever of him, were to hit me, I'd probably cry, and then run away. Professional athletes don't cry and they don't run. This is what they do for a living, every single day.
We've heard of professional athletes playing through all kinds of pain. We've also heard about them suffering through all kinds of it. Everyone is familiar with Kevin Everett's story. Football fans will know about the ongoing battle between the NFL Players Association and veteran players to get better support for those who have been severely injured or disabled during their careers. In baseball, there was the violent collision between Carlos Beltran and Mike Cameron in center field at Petco Park several years ago. Some of these things are accidents that can't be avoided. Others are simply wear and tear of a dangerous line of work. And then we have to ask ourselves: how much is too much? Where is the line drawn between professional obligation and personal safety?
Athletes are obligated to a great many people. They are obligated to their fellow players, their coaches, and the organization which pays their salaries. They are also obligated to their fans and their team's city – and if you don't believe me, look at how hard 'fans' came down on Tomlinson for not playing in the AFC championship game. Despite an injury that he made worse even with the four snaps he took, he was still roasted over the coals. As fans, we demand a lot of our athletes, ostensibly because they're paid millions of dollars to play a game, and we expect to get our money's worth. Yet we forget that they're also human.
We forget that if we were in their position, we probably wouldn't be able to do half of what they do.
When it comes to playing hurt, or getting there, we can only ask the best of what each individual person can give. We have to take into account their individual physical limits and obligations. While we might want a superhero who will play until they drop dead, it's just not feasible. Not if that athlete wants a long career to be able to support his or her family for years to come. Not if they want to continue to have a high quality of life long after the game is finished.
In the years that I've been playing sports, I'm not afraid to risk my body. It's something that I do for the love of the game. Yet it's not very likely that anything serious is ever going to happen to me. I'm lucky in that sense. Our modern athletes do what they do because of their own love of the game, and we have seen a great many of them take amazing risks for their teams and for their fans. Yet I think it's impossible to ask them to do so when it can only be detrimental to them. If they suffer a serious injury and fail to perform the following year, won't we then be crying that they need to be traded or released because they're not playing up to potential? If they get seriously hurt, will we be there to support them and their loved ones?
As fans, we treat our athletes as heroes. For a great many of us, they are heroes. But in the end, they're only human, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.