There’s a lot to process from ESPN’s E:60 program Thursday night, when Michael Smith sat down with former Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson for the first major interview after Johnson’s career came to an end earlier this year. The interview touched on multiple points — notably the conceit of whether he would have maybe stayed longer if the Lions were contending and the nature of getting injured playing football.
There’s a lot to unpack, but let’s talk about the major points from the interview.
The NFL’s painkiller problem is real as real gets
Too often lost beneath the furor of the concussion crisis (which is still very real and has an ongoing impact on the sport’s future), painkiller abuse runs rampant in NFL locker rooms. It seems almost obvious; a sport that thrives on pain and a virtual 100% injury rate should be a virulent breeding ground for opioids. That particular cancer needs little introduction, although a refresher in the chilling forces that helped create the crisis is always good for the soul.
It’s no different for the Lions locker room. We don’t know who exactly was giving Calvin Johnson the pills -- team doctors, a trainer or other athletes -- but the availability was laughably facile. Vicodin and Toradol (the latter not addictive, the former dangerously so) were there for the taking. By all reports, Johnson was taking two Vicodin every Sunday to play through pain during one particular season; certainly he wasn’t the only one.
And to be certain, there was good need to use it, if you listen to Calvin talk about needing his knee drained 12 times in one season or imagining any other scenario of pain in the NFL. That said, the oversight of prescribed use is lacking, to say the least.
Although awareness is on the rise about painkiller abuse across the United States, it’s yet to really sink in that there might be a problem brewing in the locker rooms of violent sports. Calvin Johnson is, however, certainly no poster child for painkiller abuse and addiction in the NFL.
It’s very hard for players to trust the medical staff to do right by them
Putting aside that this might apply to the painkiller abuse above, there’s other issues that face a player when dealing with a team’s medical staff, and Calvin Johnson certainly elaborated on them.
It doesn’t take long to go back and look at how the Lions medical staff bungled, for whatever motive, the diagnosis of a concussion in one of their players.
Wait, I’m sorry. That’s the wrong link. Here we go. That one’s for Calvin Johnson. In fact, Calvin Johnson never appeared on an injury report for a concussion, but he could have had multiple. It's hard to self-diagnose, but harder still when the doctor isn't trying to do right by the diagnosis either.
The conflict of interest should be self-evident when it comes to team doctors. Careers are determined in football in large part whether the best players are in the game; not clearing those athletes to play for medical concerns undermines that. It’s easy to see why players might not trust that when a team doctor is explaining how it’s not a concussion and they don’t need to go through the league-mandated protocols that such a position is probably not coming from the Hippocratic Oath.
The "What if the Lions were contending?" question is a small sell but...
The potential scenarios offered by Michael Smith came early in the interview but were rather inconsequential next to the confirmations of pain and injury. This isn’t an attempt to minimize anything, but I’m also not the sort to look at all that Calvin Johnson spoke about and just think the final utterance that, yes, if the Lions won more games Johnson maybe thinks about retirement in a tangentially different light, that such a proclamation is so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things (nor do I really know what I’m supposed to do with it other than just point out again how historically putrid the Lions have been on the football field).
Buuuuuut there were hints of tension here when Calvin Johnson was pressed to think about his status with the Detroit Lions organization. It was hiding somewhere around when he laughed off early questions about the Lions and their losing and how it did/did not play a role in his retirement. He talks about that he might need to write a book, which would be vastly interesting in itself; he also wondered what would be if the Lions would "get out of their own way." There is certainly hesitation to be found about the "what if" that surrounds his retirement.
Along with what he had to say about Lions team doctors and how they handled the concussion, it's not hard to see that there may be some lingering issues between Johnson and the organization that might need to be addressed. It's something to keep an eye on, something that might flare up again if Johnson decides to speak up again in retirement.
He still most likely ain’t coming back
I hedged my bet so you can’t dig this up and use it against me should the 0.0001% chance event happen.
No. Calvin’s not coming back. He humored Michael Smith the best he could about Boston or Atlanta but he clearly had no interest in even discussing the matter. Any hopeful return couched in fairy tale fantasy remains just that, told again and again by players, analysts and fans who have short-circuited and can’t rationalize that a superstar has walked away from football. The act of quitting is reserved for losers and scabs; certainly the king will return. Keep chasing that dream.
If you missed our rapid reactions to the interview on Facebook Live last night, you can watch it in its entirety below: