Injuries: To play or not to play? That is the Question

Often at times, fans question players drive when they sit out with what are thought to be minor injuries.  “So, he’s sitting out with turf toe?  How painful could that be?” or, “Yeah, he’s got a hangnail again.”

But this type of sarcasm and utter lack of empathy underlies one of the major problems in professional sports:  players are top flight athletes, and taking away even a fraction of a second’s reaction time can result in a huge advantage for any given opponent.

This fact was presented to reporters as Orlando Magic rookie Aaron Gordon described it, stating that “It’s been a long time since I’ve been healthy; I felt healthy today.” He goes on to say that it is too difficult to guard players while hobbling, also citing that it is a psychological issue too while playing injured.

Gordon said that the season is long and added that it makes it all the more impressive that teammate Elfrid Payton has charged through the brick wall; to come out the other side with back-to-back triple doubles.  Rookies often breakdown because few are accustomed to playing that much.  The big minutes players that rarely suffer injury are impressive models of the human body.

Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton
Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton (USA Today Sports)

They want to study legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan’s arm when he dies.  Similarly, Karl Malone’s entire body deserves study.  And the list most certainly goes on.  There are marvels of nature, “Iron Men,” and the luxury of having a guy whose body holds up through massive abuse is rare.

Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr; again citing baseball, played every game for most of his career and held up for 21 years.  NBA players have more strain on their bodies than baseball players, with all due respect to the American pass time.  Baseball doesn’t require the torsion of ankles and knees, the falls onto the hardwood, or most of the contact. So, to compare Ripken to the likes of Aaron Gordon is not an accurate projection of what to expect from a professional athlete.

There are guys who defy the rules of nature regularly.  Michael Jordan’s flu game (see below) was more impressive to those who have suffered flu-like symptoms and know that the entire body aches, unable to even get out of bed.  And Jordan was out dropping bombs on the best players in the NBA, later to be carried off the court by his co-star Scottie Pippen.

So are the criticisms of today’s athletes refusing to play through minor injuries fair or not?  Is Gordon right that it is impossible to play with a hobble, or does Jordan’s flu game entirely negate that notion?  Is Jordan the embodiment of a deity or are the likes of Aaron Gordon simply so mortal that it is unfathomable to be able to play through debilitation while also thriving.  It’s so tough to say, mainly because we know our own bodies so well and know nothing of others.  Perhaps some people are more tolerant to intense pain and can simply block out the ache, deny the source of the injury, and thrive accordingly.

Gordon cited the psychological nature of playing injured, sitting and coming back, and trying to thrive once healthy. The fact that he isn’t a rotation player may play a huge role as well, but the point is that injuries can be either entirely debilitating, or guys can fight through them.  And it’s difficult to say why a guy like Kobe Bryant would try to pull his Achilles’ back into place and finish a contest.  It doesn’t make sense, and when I have a child and he or she gets injured, my exact words will be “Suck it up; Kobe would have played through that.”

But not everyone is Kobe.  And no one is Jordan.

There’s simply a level at which we reach extreme discomfort and are unable to perform our best.  It’s normal.  The aforementioned iron men that exceed this limitation are the ones who are revered and sometimes ignored, depending on how good the player is.  So maybe that is what it boils down to: be tough if you are a starter and  your team relies on you; sit if you are a fringe rotation rookie, citing the reasons that Gordon did.

There’s no clear cut answer here—at all.  A broken toe can be played on, but pivoting and even stopping forward motion becomes difficult.  The pain can be cast aside, but the limitations of an injured bone or joint can’t be ignored. Obviously, if Derrick Rose was healthy enough to play all year he would have.  He wasn’t sitting out with a “contusion” like DeMarcus Cousins has done on occasion.

But what if the bruises affect Cousins’ quads so much that he can’t be effective in the post.  Should he play anyway? At what point does the cost of abusing the body further outweigh the benefits of taking a few weeks off to rehab a nagging thorn in the side that won’t seem to shake free?

Again, be the first to solve this and you may win a Pultizer.

Why?

Because it is as easy as figuring out what is wrong with a car without popping the hood.  We’re left to guess why some of these machines, these players, are able to succeed while we hear the engine knock but don’t know the source of the malfunction.  Gordon sat with an ankle injury and rehabbed it to 100 percent.  Some guys rehab to about 60 percent and then get antsy to play again—typically resulting in further injury (see:  Brandon Roy, in particular).

Perhaps at some point we will realize that guys are not being soft by sitting out.  Certain players don’t have the psychological make up to play at a high level injured.  Other guys can’t avoid injuries and spend their entire careers with one minor injury after another, like Andrei “AK-47” Kirilenko.

At what point do general managers begin to look at injury history and not write players off?  It’s almost like the employee who consistently shows up late and cites a new excuse every time, except this time there is physical proof to show the boss that abuse has occurred in the work place and it’s time for a rest.

On that note, this article ends, in favor of rest.

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