The Heartache of Being Hurt- Injuries in Professional Sports
by Albert Liao | Cornell University
A player can possess unworldly talents, work harder than anyone on his team, and have a selfless attitude, but one two-word description can completely ruin his value to a squad: injury-prone. When a team has to rely on an injury risk, management and fans alike cross their fingers, perform superstitious rituals, and pray as fervently as Tim Tebow.
So why do injuries happen? Why did Greg Oden just get cut after playing 82 games in five seasons, while Kevin Durant, who came into the league skinnier than a supermodel, has been able to withstand the punishment of an NBA season?
For normal people, fitness level has a lot to do with injuries; if you perform physical activities regularly, you’ll have a smaller chance of getting injured when you play sports. This was even noticeable with NFL players coming back from the lockout. With less time to prepare for the season, there were more serious injuries at the start of the year, because the players’ bodies had not completely adjusted to the rigors of the league. Within the first four weeks of the season, 10 players were injured for the rest of the season – including stars Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, and Kenny Britt – while many others suffered injuries at a higher rate. But lockouts don’t happen every year, so what else causes players to have recurring injuries?
One explanation is simply bad luck. There’s really no other reason for freak injuries like Miguel Cabrera getting hit in the eye because of a bad hop. But what about recurring injuries? Anyone can tweak an ankle or knee on a cut, or have someone fall on their leg in an awkward way, but this can’t be the only explanation. Some players – Stephen Curry comes to mind – will tweak an ankle and sit out for weeks at a time. Meanwhile, LeBron will land funny on his ankle, grimace for 15 seconds, then proceed to do things only LeBron James can do.
The truth is that some players’ bodies are built to withstand injuries. You could make Ken Griffey, Jr. emulate Cal Ripken’s entire life, and he wouldn’t approach Ripken’s astonishing 2,632 consecutive games played. However, when we look at some other cases, we cannot say that genetics is the only cause for injuries. A.C. Green, the NBA’s all-time leader in consecutive games played, was famous for his deeply religious lifestyle, never partying, never drinking, and staying abstinent throughout his entire career. It would be foolish to think this lifestyle, drastically different from the out-of-control partying and drug use of the NBA during the 80s, did not affect his ability to stay healthy.
The opposite it also true: some bodies just are not built for sports. Players like Greg Oden or Mark Prior seem to be naturally brittle, but the scariest inherent health risk deals with the heart. On March 17, 2012 the sporting world took a collective gasp when Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch and was carted off the field. His heart stopped beating for 72 minutes due to an issue with his heart. Luckily, he survived and is on the road to recovery.
This is not the only example of heart issues threatening the life of an athlete. Hank Gathers, part of that famous run-and-gun Loyola Marymount team in 1990, collapsed due to an abnormal heartbeat in the middle of a game and later died. Similarly, Reggie Lewis, an All-Star with the Celtics, suddenly collapsed during a practice and died in 1993, also due to a heart condition. It’s an unfair situation for these players; they receive such natural athletic gifts, but are unable to use them due to other serious problems.
For those athletes without inherent medical flaws, one big factor we’ve yet to consider is wear and tear on their bodies. The NBA this year is a prime example of the effect of working too hard physically — by cramming 66 games into four months due to the lockout, there have been more injuries than normal. Normally reliable players – like Derrick Rose (back), Carmelo Anthony (groin), Chauncey Billups (Achilles – out for the year), and Al Horford (pectoral) – have been hurt for significant portions of the year, primarily due to the compacted schedule.
So what can teams do to prevent these injuries? As ridiculously simple and dumb as its sounds, the answer is to take more preventative measures. What’s even dumber is that many professional teams do a poor job of this. Evidence indicates that properly treating and preparing players will prevent injuries, or at least reduce their occurrence.
Baseball has taken the lead by informally limiting pitch counts and generally being very protective of young hurlers. For the most part, this has helped young pitchers prevent injuries, but again there are exceptions. Stephen Strasburg was on the tightest leash, yet he still somehow suffered an injury and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. Is getting injured so early in his career a sign of the Mark Prior gene? Not exactly, but this thought has to be in the mind of all Nationals fans.
The best example of injury prevention is the Phoenix Suns training staff. Aaron Nelson, the Suns’ head trainer, is on the forefront of all new techniques and technology, including cryosaunas, anti-gravity treadmills, and altitude simulators. The benefits of his cutting edge medical techniques are clearly seen in his extraordinary track record with his players.
Steve Nash, who is 38-years-old and has chronic back issues, is somehow still running around players, leading the NBA in assists and guiding the Suns on an improbable playoff run. He attributes his continued health to Nelson’s program. Nelson is also responsible for Amare Stoudemire’s recovery from microfracture surgery in his knee and somehow turning an oft-injured 37-year-old Shaq into a useful basketball player.
However, Nelson’s magnum opus is Grant Hill. He used to be the face of the phrase “injury-prone.” After signing a 7-year $93 million contract, Hill missed 275 out of 410 games in a 5-year stretch, injuring body parts I didn’t know existed. After joining the Suns in 2007, he has missed 19 games in 5 years. Nelson has somehow transformed Hill, now age 39, from the most injury prone player in the league into the Sun’s most reliable player, healthy enough to guard the opposing team’s best wing every game.
So, if the training staff in Phoenix is so important, why do other teams not emulate what they do? Even Suns owner Robert Sarver, one of the cheapest owners in all of sports – he once traded Luol Deng for $3 million straight-up on draft day – is willing to pay his training staff and support their new innovative techniques. I doubt I’m alone in the thinking that money is better spent keeping your stars healthy than adding marginal talent to your team. Let’s hope teams begin to realize this because it’s definitely more fun to cheer for your team than for a foot to heal.Albert Liao is a NGJ Staff Writer and a sophomore studying Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University.