As an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine, treating injuries of athletes and active people, I obviously care about the health of my patients. And for years, I have promoted a message that we need to do everything we can to protect the health of the athletes.
But I have realized that sports fans don’t really care about health and safety. I mean, we say we do. But we care much more about what happens on the court or field. To be fair, as a huge sports fan myself, I often have the same mindset I’m criticizing here. But I thought that for my Thanksgiving week newspaper column, I would show how we seem to care very little about the athletes who play our favorite sports for our favorite teams.
Sports fans don’t care about the health of the athletes.
I’ve been writing a column on sports injuries for The Post and Courier for over nine years. I have finally realized that sports fans just don’t care about the health of the athletes. Sure, it’s easy to blame owners and leagues who seem to want to make money more than protect the players, but there is plenty of evidence that fans care more about winning and entertainment than we care about the players themselves.
We care about injuries, but only in how they affect our teams.
Players get hurt in almost every game. It happens. These are contact and collision sports with big, powerful athletes. But when a player goes down, we don’t think about the injury’s long-term effects or whether it will affect his quality of life later. We want to know when he will be back on the field.
Zion Williamson, arguably the most exciting basketball player to enter the NBA in years, tears a meniscus in his knee. Instead of wondering how losing some of the shock absorber in his knee will affect his career before he reaches age 30, we debate how his absence affects TV ratings.
Heisman Trophy front-runner Tua Tagovailoa suffers a dislocated hip and acetabular fracture. Instead of considering there is a decent chance he never plays football again, or at least has a shorter football career, we debate whether the injury hurts Alabama’s chances of making the College Football Playoff.
We care about head injuries, but not if our favorite player is called for targeting.
The NFL and NCAA have adopted targeting rules to appropriately try to protect players from impacts that cause brain damage, but these rules have become some of the most hated rules in sports.
We care about the health and safety of horses more than humans.
Speaking of head injuries, where is the outrage over boxing and mixed martial arts? The goal of these sports – their entire purpose – is to inflict brain damage on the opponent and make him or her lose consciousness. Yet, these have become some of the most popular sports in the world.
We rightly express outrage when horses die. According to the Washington Post, 32 horses have died at the Santa Anita racetrack alone since December, but there was no similar outrage when boxer Patrick Day died four days after suffering a brain injury in a fight. His death was the fourth in the sport in 2019, according to CNN.
We want our teams to play in – and win – unnecessary mid-season tournaments.
As fans, we never object to the punishment the leagues inflict on the players of our favorite teams. For over 20 years, I have been a fan of Liverpool, one of the most successful soccer teams in the world. This season, Liverpool plays in its own league, the Premier League, with its grueling 38-match schedule. Plus, they play in the UEFA Champions League, two mid-season English tournaments, and the Club World Cup. Liverpool will play in 12 matches in six weeks, including two matches in two different tournaments thousands of miles apart on back-to-back days.
Even though a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine has shown that the rates of injury in professional soccer players is over six times higher when they play more than one match per week, teams and leagues make money from these unnecessary tournaments, and fans like me get to brag about winning them.
We want star athletes to play, even if they need the rest.
The NFL and NBA schedules are too long, but there is little desire to cut out games because of the money involved. The NBA has tried to address the problem by allowing teams to occasionally rest players but insisted teams couldn’t rest healthy players for national TV games or when playing on the road.
Now teams sit their stars for home games, and season-ticket holders are upset. My son and I want to travel to Memphis to watch a home game of our beloved Grizzlies. The biggest factor in us choosing which game to see is the schedule of the team around that game. We don’t want to fly there only to find the Grizzlies resting rookie sensation Ja Morant.
We don’t care about the root problems in youth sports.
We criticize the teams and players for “load management”, saying that players years ago never took time off, but we do nothing about the youth sports system running these kids into the ground all year long just so they have a chance to play at that level someday.
Our sports priorities are all mixed up.
Our priorities are all mixed up, mine included. These men and women risk their lives and their long-term health. Yes, they can become famous and enormously wealthy, but at what cost? This Thanksgiving, we should be grateful that they’re willing to sacrifice their bodies and quality of life down the road for our entertainment.
Note: A modified version of this post appears in the November 28, 2019 issue of The Post and Courier.
Rest Ja Morant (and Brandon Clarke) at home on a weekend? That’s reality for fans, like it or not. By Peter Edmiston. The Athletic. November 22, 2019.
Each year, 13 boxers on average die in the ring. By Ben Morse. CNN.com. October 17, 2019.
The time for horse racing has passed. It’s time to outlaw it. By Patrick Battuello. Washington Post. October 8, 2019.
Effect of 2 Soccer Matches in a Week on Physical Performance and Injury Rate. Gregory Dupont, Mathieu Nedelec, Alan McCall, Derek McCormack, Serge Berthoin, Ulrik Wisløff. American Journal of Sports Medicine. Volume 38, Issue 9, 1752-1758. Article first published online April 16, 2010.