Playing With Injury

June 13, 2019

By Paul Melia, CCES president and CEO -- 

Zdeno Chara playing in the Stanley Cup Finals with his broken jaw wired shut and Kevin Durant coming back from an injury to play in Game 5 of the NBA Championships raises important questions about playing through injuries in sport.

In professional sport, we celebrate those who play through the pain and risk further injury for the good of the team and we refer to this as "true leadership and courage." But is it really leadership? Is it truly courageous? Or is it actually reckless behaviour with potentially serious consequences for the athletes?

When you think about it, professional sports teams are employers and athletes are their employees. Do these professional teams not have a duty of care to protect the health and safety of their employees? In fact, an employer can be found to have breached their duty of care to an employee when they fail to do everything that was reasonable to keep their employee safe from harm. In this context, could the Boston Bruins and Golden State Warriors be seen to have failed in exercising their duty of care? Pro teams and players have unique circumstances when it comes to these situations – circumstances that don’t apply to the vast majority of people involved in sport.

Perhaps more importantly, what message does the media and commentators who glorify playing through injury send to our kids who participate in sport? We know the impact that professional athletes have as role models on our children. Yet as we try to change the culture of sport in Canada to make it safer for our children and put values at the forefront of the experience, one has to wonder to what extent professional sport is undermining our efforts. The True Sport Principle of “Stay Healthy” encourages us to balance physical and mental health with other principles, like striving for excellence, but these examples are exposing kids to a culture that values winning more than athletes’ personal health and safety.

In reality, playing through injuries most often results in further injury to the athlete – sometimes referred to as Dizzy Dean Syndrome. Dizzy Dean was a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher who returned from injury too soon, only to suffer a second injury that ended his career. Many athletes’ careers are cut short because they compete while injured, or come back before an injury is truly healed, a scenario that is particularly familiar for athletes who suffer from brain injuries resulting from repeated blows to the head.

So it was sadly ironic that a public service announcement for Rowan’s Law, Ontario’s new concussion safely legislation, was shown during the Raptors game on Monday shortly after Kevin Durant was assisted off the basketball court with a seemingly more severe injury than the one he started the game with. Rowan’s Law for concussion safety is named after Rowan Stringer, a high school rugby player who died in May 2013 after she suffered two concussions in the same week.

The Rowan’s Law advertisement that aired during the Raptors game seemingly implores athletes to risk everything when they play sports, but then unfolds to show that more serious injuries occur to those who continue to play through injuries, and culminates with the message “DON’T risk everything!”

Perhaps professional sport needs to listen to this message.