I love sports. Some of my fondest childhood memories are from weekend baseball tournaments and running to the television after dinner to watch hockey. I used to run home after school to watch the Olympics, equally enamoured with shot putters and figure skaters, rooting as intensely for archery as wrestling, for badminton as rugby, for hockey as cross country skiing. There’s nothing I love more than being in the stands at an ice rink and I have found no people more willing to be kind to a stranger than the people who sit next to me there.
It is important that you know how much I love sports so that when I say what I’m about to say, you know I am saying it with love.
We have to stop praising athletes who play through terrible injuries.
It happens all the time and we treat the athletes who do it like heroes. In 1996, Keri Strug helped team USA win gold at the Olympics by completing her vault on one foot after she badly sprained her ankle. In 1964, Bobby Baun scored a Stanley Cup winning goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs on a broken ankle. Not recent enough? In 2008, Tiger Woods won the U.S Open on one leg, suffering multiple fractures and a torn ACL in his left leg. More recent still, just last month, an injured Barrett Hayton scored a game tying goal for Canada at the World Juniors. Just two days earlier, he had been writhing on the ice in pain, screaming out over the roar of the crowd.
“He can’t lift his arms but he can score a goal,” the colour commentator said as the 19-year-old tried and failed to throw his hands in the air in celebration. Hayton was playing with separated shoulder, an injury that, once acquired, never quite goes away. Hayton’s shoulder will never be the same as it was and he will be more susceptible to shoulder injuries for the rest of his life.
It’s so easy for us to see these displays of sheer willpower and praise them. Especially when they win. Athletes are already used to sacrificing their bodies to a certain extent. When there’s a championship, everything else can seem small in comparison.
Can an athlete truly make an informed decision at that point? When you spend an entire season pushing and driving for a championship, it becomes hard to think of anything past that point. A hockey player doesn’t think about what it will be like to wake up the next day, stiff and sore, shoulder aching. He doesn’t think about what will happen in 30 years when his joints ache more than they ought to be at his age. He thinks about scoring the goal, holding the medal in his hand and being a winner.
Then I wonder about the people who don’t get to be winners at that level. The children who see their heroes grimacing through pain and decide that they can do the same thing?
I was talking to my sister the other day, reliving our athletic glory days (playing in a neighbourhood softball league with a glove I got from the lost and found.) She broke her finger on the Friday night of a weekend long tournament and like a good athlete, she taped her fingers together and played first base the next morning. She was 10. When she was 16, she played almost an entire season on a foot that had not fully healed from a nasty break the summer before. She doesn’t play anymore, but those injuries are going to be with her for a long time.
She says she did it because she couldn’t imagine sitting out. Not only because she loved playing more than anything else at that point, but also because it’s what everyone else did. It’s what our heroes did but it was also what our friends did.
Sports culture can warp our view on what’s normal, what’s okay to play through. My friends who don’t watch sports find some of the injuries I tell them about perplexing. I told a friend that a common piece of advice in the hockey world is to not take off your skates if you think your foot is broken because then it might swell up and you won’t be able to get your skate back on. “Why would you want to keep skating if your foot was broken?” She shouted more than wondered. Yet, at least once every winter, there’s a story about an NHL player blocking a shot with his foot in the first period and playing the rest of the game with a bad injury. This is the epitome of toughness, if we believe the headlines that come out the next day.
I wouldn’t blame a professional baseball player for playing in the World Series with a broken finger, that person is making millions of dollars and if they want to exchange their health for a championship, that’s their business.
When we glorify that decision, however, when we say that the aforementioned baseball player is tough and heroic, that’s when we get kids taping their fingers together, laying it all on the line in exchange for a trophy they’ll forget at the back of their closet in 10 years time.
It’s a silent expectation, that athletes are tough, strong and relentless. Watching people push their bodies to an extreme is part of what I love about sports. Moments like seeing a tennis player collapse in both exhaustion and exuberation after winning are what make sports so magical and meaningful but it feels wrong to extend that much further. Bruises and bumps and maybe even a little bit of blood are to be expected, but broken bones, dislocated joints? Those are long term injuries that could change the course of someone’s life.
They say pain is temporary and winning is forever and it’s easy to think that when you’re young. Then you get older and those injuries come back, they flare up. Pain doesn’t seem so temporary anymore. There’s a line between heroics and recklessness, it’s time to find it.