I’ve been writing this column on sports injuries for more than nine years, and in that time I've come to realize sports fans just don’t care about the health of the athletes they idolize.
Sure, it’s easy to blame owners and leagues who seem to want to make money more than protect the players, but there is plenty of evidence that fans care more about winning and entertainment than we care about the players themselves.
To be fair, as a huge sports fan, I am guilty of this myself.
Players get hurt in almost every game. It happens. These are contact and collision sports with big, powerful athletes. But when a player goes down, we don’t think about the injury's long-term effects or whether it will affect his quality of life later. We want to know when he will be back on the field.
Zion Williamson, arguably the most exciting basketball player to enter the NBA in years, tears a meniscus in his knee. Instead of wondering how losing some of the shock absorber in his knee will affect his career before he reaches age 30, we debate how his absence affects TV ratings.
Heisman Trophy front-runner Tua Tagovailoa suffers a dislocated hip and acetabular fracture. Instead of considering there is a decent chance he never plays football again, or at least has a shorter football career, we debate whether the injury hurts Alabama’s chances of making the College Football Playoff.
The NFL and NCAA have adopted targeting rules to appropriately try to protect players from impacts that cause brain damage, but these rules have become some of the most hated rules in sports.
Speaking of head injuries, where is the outrage over boxing and mixed martial arts? The goal of these sports – their entire purpose – is to make one's opponent lose consciousness, which is actually inflicting brain damage. Yet, these have become some of the most popular sports in the world.
We rightly express outrage when race horses die. According to the Washington Post, 32 horses have died at the Santa Anita racetrack alone since over the last 11 months, but there was no similar outrage when boxer Patrick Day died four days after suffering a brain injury in a fight. His death was the fourth in the sport this year, according to news reports.
As fans, we never object to the punishment the leagues inflict on the players of our favorite teams. For over 20 years, I have been a fan of Liverpool, one of the most successful soccer teams in the world. This season, Liverpool plays in its own league, the Premier League, with its grueling 38-match schedule. Plus, it plays in the UEFA Champions League, two midseason English tournaments, and the Club World Cup. Liverpool will play in 12 matches in six weeks, including two matches in two different tournaments thousands of miles apart on back-to-back days.
Even though studies have shown that the rates of injury in professional soccer players is over six times higher when they play more than one match per week, teams and leagues make money from these unnecessary tournaments, and fans like me get to brag when our team wins.
The NFL and NBA schedules are too long, but there is little desire to cut out games because of the money involved. The NBA has tried to address the problem by allowing teams to occasionally rest players but insisted teams couldn't rest healthy players for national TV games or when playing on the road.
Now teams sit their stars for home games, and season-ticket holders are upset. My son and I want to travel to Memphis to watch a home game of our beloved Grizzlies. The biggest factor in us choosing which game to see is the schedule of the team around that game. We don't want to fly there only to find the Grizzlies resting rookie sensation Ja Morant.
We criticize the teams and players for "load management," saying that players years ago never took time off, but we do nothing about the youth sports system running these kids into the ground all year long just so they have a chance to play at that level someday.
Our priorities are all wrong, mine included. These athletes risk their lives and their long-term health. Yes, they can become famous and enormously wealthy, but at what cost?
This Thanksgiving we should be grateful that they’re willing to sacrifice their bodies and quality of life down the road for our entertainment.
Editor’s note: Dr. David Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston and author of “That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever.”