A football field is also known as the gridiron, but gridiron has come to mean something more. It’s a place where athletes push their bodies to their limits and persevere through injury with one goal in mind: winning.
Everyone wants to win including the fans, television networks, sponsors, owners, players, coaches, and perhaps even the team doctors. So I have to wonder, in the heat of the moment, with the pressure on, is there a dangerous disconnect between team performance and player protection?
The recent interview by NBA veteran Andre Igoudala on the Breakfast Club revealed he had what is called a spider fracture in his leg during the 2018 NBA playoffs, yet his team characterized the injury as merely a bone bruise.
This caused added external pressure on Igoudala to play through the injury. That pressure came from the media, his family, his coaches, and even his own teammates.
“So I’m fighting with the team, I’m fighting with people, I’m fighting with the media. And then my teammates ask me every day, ‘How you feeling? How you feeling?’” Igoudala, a vital defensive weapon against Lebron James, ended up returning to action in the Finals after two and a half weeks for an injury that can easily take up to five weeks to fully heal.
The Warriors do have an internal policy which requires approval from both a player and his representative to approve wording of his injury, so Igoudala was on board with the downplayed messaging of his injury.
But following the Achilles injury to his teammate Kevin Durant a year later, an important question must be asked: are team doctors more obligated to protect team performance than player health?
Player health and team performance are not mutually exclusive but short term interest in the team often trumps long term health of the players. It’s the team doctor’s responsibility to protect the players from themselves, but it seems they more often protect the team’s interest.
Athletes want to compete, even when they are injured. I won a Junior Olympic Tae Kwon Do gold medal with a concussion and played in the NAIA National Volleyball Championships with a bulging disc in my lower back. I was medically cleared both times despite the fact that I shouldn’t have been.
When I had to be carried onto the team bus because I couldn’t walk, I remember asking the team trainer if I was going to be able to play again during the tournament. That’s how much I wanted to show up for my team and grind through the pain, but I was a liability.
In truth, I had been experiencing numbness throughout my hip and shooting pains down my leg for almost two weeks prior to the championship tournament. I was experiencing classic symptoms of a bulging or herniated disc.
Our team trainer, also a Tulane physical therapist, should have easily recognized the symptoms and referred me to an orthopedist. Instead, I worsened the injury over two weeks of practice, played limited minutes in the tournament, and at the age of 20 I retired from volleyball. It would be nearly five years before I felt even 90% recovered. I needed to be saved from myself.
I wondered, then, were there any Saints players who needed to be saved from themselves last year? After looking at the injury reports from Week 1 through 16, two glaring cases seemed to stand out.
The more obvious case was Marcus Davenport, who first popped up on the injury report in week nine with a toe injury. He was held out of competition through Week 11 before being listed as questionable in Week 12 and later a full participant in Week 13.
Then somehow from Week 14 on, Davenport wasn’t even listed on the injury report despite requiring offseason surgery to repair the toe injury he seemingly played through for half the regular season and into the playoffs.
Are we to believe Davenport’s injury magically healed the last month of the season or did the training staff try to hide his injury from their opponents and the media? I’m sure every team in almost every sport downplays injuries in order to maintain a competitive advantage over their opponents, but when does blurring that line become negligent towards their players?
In a sport where contracts aren’t fully guaranteed for the most part, players have all the incentive to play through injury. Remember how important Keenan Lewis was to the Saints’ secondary in 2013 and 2014?
By 2015, he had played his last professional game and would later seek an injury settlement with the Saints over a misdiagnosis and failed surgery of his hip flexor. The Saints fired team orthopedists Deryk Jones and Misty Suri in 2017 for misdiagnosing Delvin Breaux’s fractured fibula as a bone bruise.
In a sport where there are only 16 regular season games, team doctors have all the incentive to get players on the field at all costs. But in the case of Delvin Breaux, this mindset cost two doctors their jobs.
The more curious case I noticed was Andrus Peat. I’ve read plenty of articles stating Peat is overpaid and could be a salary cap cut casualty, but after looking at his weekly appearances on the injury report, I’m not sure there’s a tougher Saint willing to sacrifice his body more.
In week one, Peat was listed with a knee issue. In weeks two through six, an ankle issue. In week seven, the report simply said, “head.” In Weeks 10 and 11, it was his hip, but in Week 12 it was his knee.
Then in Week 13, it was his shoulder, before becoming both ankle and shoulder in Week 15, and later just the shoulder in Week 16. In Week 8, 9, and 14, Peat was somehow perfectly healthy, which doesn’t make any sense at all.
This dude sucked it up the entire freaking season with a different ailment almost every week, but why did his weekly reports look like a half ass version of the board game “operation”? It almost seems like the Saints were just pointing to body parts and naming them like Brick in Anchorman.
Why don’t NFL injury reports state more than a body part? What was wrong with Peat’s head in week seven? A concussion seems to be the only pointed diagnosis NFL teams will allow the public to have full knowledge of from week to week, yet that wasn’t the term the team used.
Do NFL players have any say in what the team divulges to the media and general public? Do the players trust their team’s medical staff? If they did, why are so many players choosing Dr. James Anderson, the surgeon who repaired Brees’ shoulder and Davenport’s toe, rather than trusting their own team surgeons?
NFL teams are lucky they don’t have to list anything more than simply a body part in the injury report. But if they don’t start placing long term player health over short term team performance, that luck is bound to run out.