06/20/2012 11:27 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

LeBron's Injury and Why the Cult of Toughness in Sports Must End

On Tuesday night, LeBron James turned in another performance that only further bolstered what is shaping up to be one of the greatest collections of individual efforts in NBA Finals history. The most gifted athlete of his generation was only one rebound shy of securing a triple double in the Miami Heat's game four victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but -- as has become commonplace for James the past couple of years -- his remarkable statistical output was overshadowed.

With roughly five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of the contest, James appeared to go down in pain. He would score a quick basket before being assisted off the court by teammates and trainers to tend to cramps. He would return to action briefly -- hitting a crucial three-pointer -- before ultimately sitting out the rest of the game while it was still in the balance. James' injury -- both the shot he made when he briefly returned to the game while still cramping, and his time on the bench during the game's final moments -- became the main topic of conversation among fans and pundits alike.

And that's a shame.

If there is one lesson the sports world should learn to absorb and embrace, it is that a player who is hurt should not have his value judged based on whether or not he plays through pain.

Now in this instance, the injury admittedly wasn't serious -- cramps can be combatted by something as simple as hydration -- but high-profile games tend to contribute to the overall culture and conversation we have in regards to athletics, and that's what makes zeroing in on James' injury troubling.

Anything LeBron James does resonates with athletes, young and old, nationwide. Thus when a value judgement is made on James in relation to his response to being injured, it can create the perception, consciously or not, that ones worth as a teammate, athlete and even as a man can be determined based on how one responds to pain.

This is troubling for many reasons.

The machismo culture that surrounds athletics doesn't allow for 'wusses,' and often elevates those who play in spite of injury to hero-status -- Willis Reed and Kirk Gibson were both immortalized as a result of individual performances in which they played through pain.

But as we keep learning more about the dire consequences that can occur as a result of athletes ignoring the pain signals their body is sending them, it's time our culture re-evaluates how we connect toughness with injury.

Peter King of Sports Illustrated, wrote this in regards to the death of Junior Seau, who died in May of a self-inflicted gunshot wound:

As much as any player I've covered in 28 years of reporting on the NFL, Seau didn't acknowledge pain. It could be handled. It was a nuisance to be wrapped up or shot up... anything to make it possible to play 16 times every autumn. In the first 14 seasons of his career, from age 21 to 34, this Tasmanian devil of a player missed nine games. Seau insisted that if you could walk, you could play. And we all ate it up.


I don't know what happened to Junior Seau. No one does, not yet. But I do know it bothers me that I helped create this image of a man incapable of feeling what you and I feel. In the end he must have felt more pain than any of us could imagine. And for that reason I know I'll be a lot more cautious about praising men as heroes for playing with injuries they shouldn't be playing with.

But as much as athletes such as Seau are revered for playing through pain, there are just as many examples of players being criticized for sitting out in response to injury -- sometimes even by fellow athletes.

In January 2011, when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler sat out the second half of the NFC championship game with what was eventually diagnosed as an MCL tear, Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew tweeted, "He can finish the game on a hurt knee... I played the whole season on one..." Then Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock added "Cutler... wut a sissy!" for good measure.

Hockey players arguably face more pressure to prove their worth through pain than in any other professional sport. There are guys who have made entire careers out of dishing out hits and getting in fights, much to the delight and adoration of fans. But Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard are now unfortunately not able to speak out about just how dangerous earning the moniker of "enforcer" can be: All three former players died in the past year, and they were all under the age of 35, with Rypien passing away at 27.

As Americans, gritting it out is an unmistakable part of our culture. We're a country that forfeited $67 billion worth of vacation days in 2011 in favor of keeping our noses to the grindstone. So it's little wonder why we expect our most beloved heroes to display a similar demeanor. Perhaps it's time we stop setting such a standard, if for no other reason than the fact that it doesn't seem to be working out too well for us -- we as a country currently rank 50th in life expectancy, which is close to the lowest amongst industrialized nations. Granted many factors contribute to this, but our general societal attitude to 'tough it out' in many situations likely doesn't help.

It's time we grow cognizant of the dangers that our culture of praising supposed 'toughness' creates, and how impressionable it can be on young people who feel the need to sacrifice their long-term physical health in pursuit of it.

LeBron James played a great game on Tuesday night.

That's all.