Stephen Curry’s fall during last Sunday’s game resulted in a mild diagnosis and a heated discussion surrounding the treatment of injuries in professional sports. With only a medial collateral ligament sprain, Curry will be back on the court within a mere three weeks. The relatively positive prognosis still poses a challenge for both his team and the doctors treating the injury. Three weeks off the court could cause Curry to completely miss vital playoff games. With a key player out of commission, the NBA, his team, and Curry’s sponsors could potentially experience huge monetary losses. Therefore, the pressure is on doctors to get Curry back in the game. In addition to conventional treatment options, doctors often employ experimental healing methods such as plasma and bone marrow injections. It is common that unrelated injuries are often discovered in MRIs and X-rays while the injury the athlete came in for is being analyzed. For those who are not elite athletes, orthopedic surgeons would usually treat both the existing and new problems. However, when dealing with professional athletes, speed in recovery is paramount, so chronic injuries are often overlooked.
The pressure to get back in the game quickly isn’t unique to basketball— all high level athletes know that recovery time means lost money. Even in college athletics, students are pushed to get back in the game. A friend of mine was a top sprinter on the track team her freshmen and sophomore years until a knee injury took her out. The injury wasn’t severe, so she should have healed completely had she let it heal for the doctor-prescribed four weeks. Eager to get back to her sport and with pressure from her coach to represent at an upcoming meet, she convinced the doctor to allow her to compete after only three weeks of recovery. She re-injured her knee during a meet and the damage was irreparable. That extra week of lost healing time ended her running career. Similar instances of not allowing sufficient time for healing occur across all disciplines, leading to shortened player shelf life and lifelong health issues.
I completely understand why it continues to happen, however. Athletes feed on competition, and they often treat an injury like another opponent to defeat. Players bank on the same sheer grit and strength that make them exceptional athletes to overcome their injuries. True, playing through pain is a mark of dedication that earns athletes esteem from their teammates, but beneath its victorious facade, it flags players for expedited expiration. When a player prioritizes the immediate glory of playing through pain, they have to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. Although many universities and professional sports teams have programs in place to educate athletes on the importance of caring for their personal health, they have not been effective. The influences of money and a sense of obligation to one’s teammates override the influence of a well-meaning athletic trainer telling a group of bored teenagers to take care of themselves. Or, in the case of professional sports, athletes feel pressured by their sponsors and teams to get back in the game. No bone marrow treatment or top orthopedic surgeon or plasma injection can heal an athlete fast enough by the professional sports industry standards.
There is no clear cut solution to this problem; there are always ways to circumnavigate and cheat regulations, and the highly individualized nature of medical problems makes it nearly impossible to standardize healing times and procedures. Athletes need to take responsibility for their own health. When elite athletes begin to prioritize thorough healing, their sponsors, teams, and peers will begin to prioritize it too. In the past ten years, ex-football players’ brain injuries have been brought into the spotlight, which has greatly raised awareness for the severity of head injuries and impacted the way concussions are treated in all sports. Similarly, if ex-athletes from other disciplines come forward to talk about the way poorly treated sports injuries negatively impact them long after they hang up their jerseys, then young athletes might take notice and become more aware of the potential gravity of a simple sprain or fracture.