Everyone wants to be the hero, but the risks almost always outweigh the benefits.
I figured, when I saw Kevin Durant’s Achilles covered in an ice pack last week, that the Golden State Warriors were trying to downplay his injury for one reason or another. “Calf strain” sounds a lot more encouraging than whatever was actually going on down there prior to Monday night’s Game 5. Those of us who watched the game then saw Durant’s hurt Achilles snap, sending this gross-looking vibration up his leg from heel to upper calf. It only took 12 minutes for him to get injured in one of the worst possible ways for an athlete in a game.
Everyone who gets hurt and is even a little competitive wants to keep going. They want to be Kirk Gibson singlehandedly winning a World Series despite not being able to put any weight on one leg. They want to be Kerri Strug winning an Olympic gold medal performing a vault after wrecking her ankle. After all, who’s tougher than an athlete fighting through pain that would sideline most folks so they can help their team or win an individual event?
The only problem is that everyone who successfully plays through injuries like that is lucky. They’re way luckier than most who have tried in the past and most who will try in the future. And when it comes to something much greater than a bruise, cramp or cut, it’s better to be smart than to be lucky.
It’s not hard to understand why coaches and programs want their best players out there at any cost. It’s not hard to understand why someone like Durant with a ticking time bomb of a ligament would want to get back out there ASAP. Some people do heal quicker than others. But at any level, an improper medical diagnosis for the sake of getting someone cleared to play as fast as possible is a short-term gamble that usually has long-term consequences, if only for one person involved. I would argue it’s the most important person involved. Now the Warriors’ best player by far won’t be able to do anything meaningful in an NBA game until around this time next year, and there’s a pretty good chance he won’t be the same all-world player he was before the initial Achilles injury.
The last thing anyone really wants is to be the next Robert Griffin III, a promising career derailed because someone thought it was a good idea to let him rush back from a knee injury only to destroy the joint even further. That’s the risk you always run when you try to fight through something bothering a joint or ligament. It’s just a bummer for the high school and college athletes out there, who are much more pressed for time than the pros and for whom any injury can totally kill future plans immediately. Many athletes are an injury away from seeing their scholarship offers or draft stocks disintegrating like Thanos might snap them out of existence, and they don’t even realize it because too many people pumped up their confidence despite knowing full well this stuff is run like a business. No one stays 100 percent healthy throughout a full season, especially later down the stretch, but it always sucks when athletes have to risk career-ending injury by getting a shot or something and getting sent back out there to “give the team the best chance to win.”
Maybe a sports injury isn’t the worst thing in the world in the grand scheme of things but, in the sense that sports can be a pathway to a better life or a way to make a living, rushing back for the sake of a moment of glory probably isn’t worth it in the long term.
Sports is littered with “back in my day” types who will gladly tell you today’s generation is soft compared to older ones. That’s all well and good until you realize how many older athletes who forced themselves or were forced to play through severe injuries (many of which we know much more about today than 30 years ago) have bodies that broke down way too early as a result, or have cognitive problems you could trace back to getting hit in the head too often. Is it worth going back out there with a potentially dangerous ligament strain when that could be your future? No way. Wouldn’t you rather boost your chances of playing longer, staying healthier, contributing to your team’s success on a bigger scale and, if you go pro, making more money? No one deserves to have their competitive drive cast in doubt because they took some extra time to make sure they’re fully healed. It’s just taking good care of your body, your greatest asset as an athlete.