When Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers exited the Sunday night season opener against the Bears, all looked lost for the Green and Gold and their Lambeau faithful. Rodgers was carted off the field following a knee injury during the first half, and things were looking dire for the Pack—a 10-0 deficit grew to 20-3.
And then Rodgers returned. He worked his magic, the Packers won 24-23 and fans were ecstatic. It was another legendary chapter in the Book of Aaron. Man gets hurt. Team suffers. Man takes painkillers or gets a cortisone injection at halftime (Rodgers did say after the game he didn’t take anything). Man returns and leads his team to victory—it’s a classic tale of sports heroics. And that’s the problem.
Sports have always been a big part of my life. I love them. But I hate the “just play through it” culture professional sports foster. Maybe—MAYBE—I could understand feeling like you can’t let an injury get in the way of playing if you’re making millions of dollars doing it. The signal it sends to young athletes, though, is not great.
I used to be the sports editor at Community News Service, and before that I wrote mostly game stories as an intern here. I constantly saw kids get hurt, go to the sidelines and then try to get right back into the game. Sometimes, they begged their coaches.
I reported on and wrote about concussion protocol at local high schools in 2015, and several county coaches said players sometimes try to hide their symptoms so they can continue playing. For that story, I spoke to Dr. Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, a concussion specialist and the director of the Sports Concussion Center of New Jersey. Moser, also a psychologist, explained why a player and even their parents can be wary about coming out of a game.
Sports are not worth your body, or your brain, or your life, or your future.
“Maybe they didn’t think it was a concussion, or they didn’t want to let their team down,” she said in an interview in 2015. “There is that pressure, not only in football, when perhaps college recruitment is dependent on athletic play. Athletes want to avoid reporting symptoms, and parents are feeling that pressure, too.”
To me, though, sports are not worth your body, or your brain, or your life, or your future. Especially for young athletes. Kids and teens can be so selfless when it comes to valuing their teams, and that’s impressive. But your team at age 15 is not more important than you ability to walk or think clearly at age 50, like some former football players said in “Do no harm: retired NFL players endure a lifetime of hurt,” a story that ran in the Washington Post in 2013. “I’m 40 years old going on 65,” said ex-lineman Roman Oben in the story. “God knows what I’ll feel like when I’m actually 65 years old.”
Then, there is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a brain disorder found in people who have sustained multiple head injuries, mostly through contact sports. Symptoms range from cognitive impairment and depression to emotional instability and suicidal behavior. There is no cure for CTE, and it can only be diagnosed after death. Ninety former NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE postmortem, some who died of suicide or following violent outbursts, and those are just the ones who have been examined. A 17-year-old high school football player from Kansas died in 2010 after sustaining a hit during a game—it was the last of many concussions—and he was diagnosed.
Sooner or later, that injury an athlete plays through will catch up to them, whether it’s a concussion or an ankle fracture. Even Rodgers told an ESPN reporter that he’s concerned his knee will get worse as the season goes on (he played the entire week two tie with the Vikings wearing a knee brace). “Obviously it won’t be 100 percent, so I’ll just adjust accordingly to how I’m feeling and try to get through,” Rodgers said.
Fortunately, in the last few years, leagues at all levels have adopted more rigorous injury protocols, especially with concussions, so it’s easier to know when an athlete is being deceptive. Medical professionals evaluate players on the sideline after a head injury, and they are taken out of the game if they show any signs. After a certain period of time—the standard for high school sports in Mercer County is one week symptom-free—athletes start a return-to-play process which starts with non-contact activities like running and solo drills. They’re generally allowed to return to the field within five days of starting the process, though that varies depending on the injury.
Still, though, there is no blanket way to truly prevent injuries, especially head injuries, in contact sports. But what is the solution? Ban them? Change the rules? The NFL has instituted rules about helmet-to-helmet hits, landing on or throwing down a quarterback, but injuries will always be a part of the game. There’s no way around that. But we can put an end to the toxic culture that surrounds it.