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The NFL’s injury reporting problem

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Why are NFL players hiding their injuries?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes you have an idea for story you really want to tell. You get your mind so wrapped around that idea and you do all the work to put that story together. But when you're so wrapped up in telling the story you want to tell, you often miss the real underlying story that’s more important.

That’s what happened to me recently when I set out to tell a story about attitude and found when I really started to listen that there is a real problem in the NFL that we often don’t talk about or pay attention to. Players are willfully hiding injuries from their team and the NFL.

Football is a violent sport. There’s no hiding that. This a sport where grown men crash into each other as fast as they can on a weekly basis. Obviously players are going to get hurt. There’s no way around it. What is concerning is that there are players that go out there every week and play with pain, and, in a lot of cases, expand their chances of getting hurt worse.

But why? We talked confidentially with two players over the past month about this issue to give their perspective on the issue.

Making the team

Both players we spoke with talked a lot about the pressures that young players face early in their careers. There is a lot on the shoulders of a guy picked early in the draft. Teams used precious draft capital on these players, and they’re also costing the team a lot in terms of salary. In other words, teams are heavily invested in these players’ success, and that can result in a lot of stress.

So right away there’s the pressure of not disappointing the front office, coaching staff, teammates and fans. Now throw that on top of your friends and family that want to see you succeed. It’s easy to look at what might seem like a small injury and put it on the back burner so you can remain on that field and not disappoint.

Now imagine you’re a late-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent. You’re carrying most of the same weight as the other guy but your chances of making an NFL squad are significantly lower—and you know it.

Let’s say you show up your first week of camp and you hurt your shoulder or your calf, but you can still run and you can still hit. Would you realistically tell anyone about that and risk valuable reps in practice or worse: be labeled as “injury prone?”

“You see a guy that’s undrafted or a late-round pick, and he’s out there and gets hurt day one and you don’t see him for about a week or a week and a half, we all say, ‘He’s not gonna be here long,’” one current NFL linebacker said. “You can’t make the club in the tub in the training room you know. You can’t make the club in the tub. I try to stay away from the trainer's room as much as possible.”

If you’re a coach and you have a few months to whittle down a team from 90 guys to 53, you’re going to take the guys that are right in front of you on the field.

What’s hard is the possibility of one of those young guys working his tail off for weeks while hurting and then sees that hurt turn into a full blown injury because he didn’t tell anyone. That’s when you see dreams of an NFL career get harder to realize or, in some cases, die. Making the team is important, but there’s a much bigger thing at stake here.

Money

Players have a chance to make a lot of money in this league, way more money than they may have been able in any other profession they’re educated in. But they also have a finite amount of time to do it in.

Per Statista, the average NFL career lasts just 3.3 years long. While we’re focusing on the Tom Bradys of the world, we’re totally ignoring hundreds of players that never make it off the practice squad or even out of training camp. The guys that just never get over the hump and the players that just couldn’t overcome injuries.

Per CNBC, the minimum amount a young player can make (under the current CBA) is $480,000 a year. That minimum salary goes up every year. For example, a player with three years of experience would earn at least a salary of $705,000. So if the average player plays for just three years, he make somewhere around $1.6 million. Would you endure three years of aches and pains and potential long-term damage to your body just for a chance at that payday?

That is a lot of money, but performance and reliability can lead to more of it. If a player goes out and has a great season, he’s going to get rewarded for it. That reward is more money. More importantly, that reward is more guaranteed money. That’s go-see-the-trainer-when-you’re-hurt money.

You can see why the young guys don’t want to tell anyone they’re in pain. They’re trying to make that money. But injuries don’t only hurt the young guys’ pocket books. They hurt the vets, too.

Injuries can quickly become a bargaining chip for teams looking to get a discount on keeping a player or bringing a player in. If you’re really good, you’ll command money no matter what. But you won’t get as much if you spent some time on the injury report the year before. You definitely won’t get as much if you missed time.

Take Richard Sherman’s deal with the 49ers, for example. Once the highest paid corner in the NFL, Sherman tore his Achilles in his final year with the Seahawks. That injury came into play in Sherman’s contract negotiations in the form of incentives.

In 2019 Sherman would make $2 million as a base pay. Much lower than $11,431,000 million he made the year before. At the end of the year he wound up taking home $7 million because $2 million was withheld until he could pass a physical, another $2 million was withheld for per game 46-man roster bonus that required he be active for each game to get paid out. The other $1 million is if he made the Pro Bowl. He made a risky bet on himself and lucky for him, it paid off. But if Sherman got hurt again, he would have missed out on $5 million.

As fans, we want to believe our heroes are going out to the gridiron for the love of the game and the city that cheers them on. As adults, you have to know it’s about family and life after football. More money makes both of those things a lot easier and opens up a lot more options. All the more reason to tape it up and keep going.

Pride

Both players we spoke to talked a lot about how pride impacted their decisions when it came to injuries.

“It was just me and my pride. If I can run, I can run. It’ll pass.” said the anonymous linebacker. “I played through a lot of stuff from torn labrum to possible concussions. I played through all kind of things. And I still do. If I can play, I can play.”

One theory we talked with players about is toxic masculinity. It’s the idea that after years of being told to be a man and being taught that one of the most important things about being a man is being tough and handling pain. The other is to never let anyone think you’re soft.

Both players had things to say on the subject and there was some belief that this is a societal issue that’s also made its way to football, but maybe it’s not as clear to see as you’d think.

“I think [toxic masculinity] is there for, I wouldn’t say weaker minded players, but players that are more influenced socially,” a former NFL defensive lineman told me. “You’re always gonna have teammates who question the seriousness of your injury or the scope of it. You’ll always have coaches question the scope of it.”

It’s not all bad. Some players are looking out for each other

While individuals may be trying to hide injuries, teammates in the NFL are almost always trying to do what’s best for their fellow players.

“It’s about the team,” the former defensive lineman told me. “But it’s also about at that fraternity. We’re not trying to see each other get hurt unnecessarily. I’ve been on the sideline where one of the players didn’t want to report his concussion. As a group, we noticed it and we’re like, ‘Nah, man, you gotta report it. We got this. Don’t worry about leaving us out to dry.’ There’s definitely a lot of that stuff going on that people don’t really talk about.”

Players have each other’s backs, and it shows in moments like that. But this kind of teammate support only works if the injury is visible. What about the other injuries that could be just as serious but are much easier to conceal?

At the end of the day, it’s hard to judge from afar. I don’t play pro football and I don’t experience the experiences that these guys do. Still, it’s plain to see that there’s an issue in the NFL with hiding injuries. You can make the case that hurt and injured are two different things, but hurt is always a mistake away from being injured.

Is there a solution?

Here’s the rub. How do you fix this problem? What can the NFL implement that can help these players? Ultimately, you have to assume that if players are able to stay healthy and continue to improve, there’s a chance for the league to have more stars.

Instead of working to make the season longer and add more playoff teams, NFL owners should be looking to keep their investments—the players—safe and healthy.

At the end of the day it has to be about protection. Players aren’t reporting these injuries because of fear. Fear of getting cut or fear of missing out on a contract extension or a big pay day. There needs to be something in place that allows these players to comfortably say, “Hey, I’m hurt,” and get the care they need without having to fear that there won’t be a job to come back to. Maybe it means more players that can return from injured reserve. Maybe it means deeper rosters and no gameday scratches.

Obviously there can still be limitations that work for the teams. If it’s a player that’s constantly getting hurt, the team shouldn’t be forced to hold onto that guy. But they should, at the very least, have to give that guy a chance or two early on.

What about us? Are NFL fans partially to blame?

Absolutely. At the end of the day, the man or women in the crowd or watching at home can’t make a player come forward with their injury and get the help they need. That’s not on any of us. That’s strictly the responsibility of the player.

But what is on us is that we celebrate it every single time. Matthew Stafford is the perfect example of that. Think back to 2009 when Stafford separated his shoulder against the Browns and came back in after writhing in pain on the sideline to throw the game-winning touchdown.

A moment that made everyone love and respect Matthew Stafford for his toughness. It’s something that we continue to celebrate today. Stafford played with broken bones in his back and we respected that. We consider it tough and tough is good. That moment against the Browns definitely was great, but it was a moment that never needed to happen and, frankly, never should have.

At the end of the day, what did that really help? The Lions won two games that year. That was one of them. Worst case scenario Stafford sits out the rest of the year, the Lions lose, he gets razzed on sports talk radio, the Lions still pick Ndamukong Suh and Stafford probably still turns out to be Matthew Stafford. The even worse case scenario is C.J. Mosley hits Stafford again and causes even more damage. Maybe even damage that’s bad enough to end a career.

This extends beyond Stafford. Think about Michael Jordan’s flu game, Kirk Gibson going to the plate on legs that he could barely use, Isiah Thomas limping up and down the court in the 1988 finals, Kerri Strug sticking the landing on one foot and so many others.

We celebrate humans risking their bodies as if it’s a triumph of the human spirit. At least that’s what we do when it works. When it doesn’t, we demean the athlete. Robert Griffin III, is a perfect example of a guy that shouldn’t have been out there when battling through injuries. Instead of resting Griffin after pulling his LCL, he went on the field in the Wild Card game and suffered grade three ACL tear. Now that’s his legacy. It’s effectively ruined his entire career.

What if Washington sat him, took the loss in the playoffs and came back with him at 100 percent the next season? Remember, he was coming off a Pro Bowl season prior to that. Imagine a world where RG3 never got hurt.

As fans, maybe it’s time we stop celebrating the hurt athlete. There are other ways we can define toughness. One of those ways can be the toughness of a player willing to say they need help.