With the NFL season finally under way, folks around the U.S. once again have something to look forward to each week other than perhaps getting away for a brief escape to the shore, the cape, the lake, or the plain old "beach," depending on where they live. Despite sharing in their excitement, I've found myself stuck on one of less fun topics of the game. I can't seem to ignore the seemingly ever-present discussion of injuries -- both the reports on new and potentially season-ending ones but also the more encouraging, though still worrisome, coverage on ones from which star players are recovering.
My less than positive focus undoubtedly stems from the fact that I watched many of this week's games in my living room with a set of crutches leaning against my couch and with my foot securely fastened into a "walking boot" and propped up on my coffee table. I've been required to use the crutches and boot after a recent ankle and foot injury, one that I sustained during a basketball game in my company's New York City rec league. In my current "condition,"(a small fracture, torn tendon and ligament, and some bone bruising), l could barely stomach last Monday's ESPN "Sports Science" segment which took a brief, though in-depth, and in my very biased opinion, unnecessarily graphic look at the details surrounding Robert Griffin III's arthroscopic surgery and knee reconstruction.
Whether you're a Redskin's fan, a fantasy football fanatic, or just a general football enthusiast, chances are, at one point or another over the past year, you had your eye on RG3 in his return against the Eagles. Griffin, or perhaps more specifically his recovery time, was described as "super-human," by doctor James Andrews, the same renowned surgeon who operated on Adrian Peterson just prior to his 2012 MVP award-winning season. However, wisely so, Dr. Andrews broadcast an informal disclaimer that the RG3s and APs of the world are few and far between and that they should always be thought of as the "exception and not the rule."
Personally, I cringed with each cut RGIII made and each hit he withstood. I thought about his rapid recovery time and the inherent risks of rushing back to play if in fact there were any doubts about his knee being fully ready to go. I'm not a medical expert (despite the unfortunately high number of visits I've made to doctor's for sports injuries) and admittedly I didn't keep as close an eye on the reports about Griffin's progression from his initial injury to the diagnosis, prognosis, and eventual recovery; though, from the little I did hear and read, there were certainly doubts.
Whether the doubts had merit to them or not, the question about Griffin's readiness needed to and should continue to be considered thoroughly. Furthermore, the question should not only be were both he and his knee ready for the key moment of starting alongside his teammates in their season opener, but also are they both (he and his knee) ready for the high number of reps you'd expect from a starting QB over the upcoming season?
Think back to Stephen Strasburg, another DC sports star, and the young Nationals pitcher who was held to a certain number of pitches and innings after returning from Tommy John's surgery in 2012. Interestingly, Strasburg (and his team of doctors and coaches I'm sure) stuck with his recovery plan and he didn't even pitch when the National's made the playoffs that year, though as Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post explained back in the summer of 2012, "there was never a chance Strasburg would pitch in the playoffs." However, I have to imagine and I even remember discussing with my own friends whether that was the "right" thing to do- what was right for Strasburg who I'm sure wanted to play and then what was right for the Nationals who I'm sure wanted their star to contribute?
It will always be easier for outsiders (including myself) to armchair "QB" as they say, without ever fully comprehending how hard it is for players like Griffin and Strasburg to stay away from a game they not only love, but also one to which they have devoted and committed so much of their young lives.
Needless to stay, I'll also never come close to fathoming what it'd be like to pass up on the possible endorsements or multi-million dollar contracts, the rare opportunities to play starting quarterback or to pitch in the MLB playoffs, and perhaps most importantly, the pressure. Sure, I've faced pressures in both my life as an athlete and otherwise, but I can't compare my pressures to those faced by NFL or MLB players when dealing with coaches, teammates, owners, doctors, fans, or at least not with a straight face anyway.
Stepping back from RGIII and Strasburg and also from knees and elbows more broadly, concussions, another major class of sports injuries especially in football, have received significant attention in recent years. This attention has come at all levels of the sport- from the pros down to Pee Wee and deservedly so, as I can't imagine a compelling argument against the urgency of better understanding, preventing, and treating injuries to a football player's or any other athlete's brain.
The chronic problems associated with repeat concussions abound, but one area of focus that both simultaneously frightens and fascinates me has been the increasing body of research and anecdotal evidence drawing connections between concussions and symptoms of serious depression. One tragic instance, which happened to take place during my time as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, led a young Penn football player to eventually take his own life. The details of the incident, described here in the New York Times, paint a picture of this young man as someone with "no previous history of depression," who eventually took his own life after a period of what was described as "a sudden and uncharacteristic emotional collapse," following a history of several head injuries and concussions.
With concussions perhaps more so than any injuries, coaches, doctors, teammates, and even close friends or family members, will often have little idea about the full extent of the impact stemming from each ding or blow to the head. However, even when asked very direct questions, the issue isn't necessarily honesty, but rather the same unavoidable and frustrating grey areas into which so many injuries fall. This topic resurfaced during MNF as one announcer on the broadcast summarized an exchange between Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and Griffin, in which Shanahan expressed his sincere desire (or at least I tend would like to think it was) for the two of them to remain in constant, open, and honest communication about when he could play and when he couldn't.
Upon hearing this, my roommate and I who both spent many pre-college years focused on and invested in playing sports, each recounted similar and almost identical "guidelines" from our own coaches, one who coached baseball and one football. Each coach was known to say something along the lines of "you can (i.e. probably should) play when you're hurting, but not when you're injured." However, at the end of the day, whose responsibility is it to watch out for athletes, whether a little league star or professional quarterback? Do all or even most pro-caliber athletes know their bodies well enough to make that distinction, let alone the countless youth and HS players across the country?
At all ages, no athlete wants to take him or herself off the field, and coaches don't want to force them. However, an already difficult situation becomes next to impossible when you add in the ever-compelling element of money. This powerful force weighs on the professional athletes themselves, but also the coaches and managers who do want to protect their players, but who at the end of the day must report to their bosses, the owners, who want and need to fill seats, sell jerseys, and win championships.
I certainly don't have the answer to all or even most of these difficult and sensitive questions. However, I do have all of the memories saved and lessons learned, some more positive than others, though all valuable, from my time involved in team sports both as a player and a coach. Furthermore, it doesn't take much to see the occasional pure joy experienced by fans through sports at all levels, all of which would cease to exist without the players remaining healthy long enough to play to their full potential. If for nothing else than our own selfish interest in seeing the likes of RG3, Stephen Strasburg, and Adrian Peterson play for many years to come, the effective treatment and prevention of injuries needs to remain at the forefront of our collective sports dialogue.