The old adage says that in sports, injuries happen, and it’s true. Athletes get nicks, cuts, bruises and much worse in the name of competition. That risk is a part of their jobs.
But that doesn’t mean that risk can’t be managed or reduced, or in drastic circumstances, removed. And when you look at the NFL this season, a league with almost more injuries than some others have players, it’s difficult to cope with the current state of that risk.
Start with this week’s football games. On one Sunday alone, we saw a former league MVP (Aaron Rodgers) and a former No. 1 overall draft pick (Jameis Winston) leave their respective games with injuries. Now Rodgers is potentially done for the season after his second broken collarbone. Winston’s immediate future is less clear, but that he didn’t finish Tampa’s game on Sunday doesn’t bode well.
But that was just one Sunday. Days earlier, the Carolina Panthers lost All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly to the league’s concussion protocol after his head slammed into a defender and then the ground. He also didn’t finish his game, and given his history with head injuries (this is his third concussion in three seasons), he’s likely to miss more, too. That of course comes after the Panthers lost three of their other key players – tight end Greg Olsen (broken foot), safety Kurt Coleman (sprained MCL), and center Ryan Kalil (neck) – for extended periods of time earlier this season.
Injuries seem to have gotten out of hand this NFL season. Injuries were always a part of the game, but not with this severity, not with this consistency, not with this longevity.
Many of these injuries, to the common man, would be debilitating for months, even years to come in some circumstances. And while NFL players are far from common, even their bodies aren’t built for this kind of physical punishment.
J.J. Watt, arguably the best defensive player of this generation, is out for the year with a tibial plateau fracture he suffered last week. It’s his second season-ending injury in his young career, and at this rate, it’s fair to wonder if he can ever get back to the level of dominance he used to play at.
He’s only one star who has been sidelined, though. You could almost fill an entire starting lineup with Pro Bowlers and All-Pros who are injured right now: Rodgers, Andrew Luck, David Johnson, Olsen, Tyler Eifert, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Marshal Yanda, Marcell Dareus, Kuechly, Patrick Peterson, Johnathan Joseph, Josh Norman, Olivier Vernon, Eric Berry. That is a lot of injured stars (and those aren’t all of them), and most of those are long-term injuries. Fantasy football aficionados may wince at that list, but the epidemic is about far more than a virtual game.
Just as important, or maybe even more so, is how these traumatic injuries affect players after they leave the field for good. In Kuechly’s case, the long-term effects of repeated head trauma and the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in athletes is well-documented and infamous. Former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012, after which his brain was studied and his CTE was deemed a cause of suicide. Former Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s suicide in 2012 was also partially attributed to the degenerative brain condition.
Those may be extreme cases, but ignoring the long-term damage players do to their bodies is impossible. If it isn’t a brain injury, it’s broken bones, torn ligaments, deteriorating joints and in some cases, all of the above.
So why are these brutal hits and subsequent injuries occurring at such a constant, rapid pace? Why, even as the NFL cracks down on unnecessary roughness and contact, is this injury epidemic getting worse?
Part of it is that players today are faster, bigger, and stronger than their predecessors, so the same time-tested collisions end up being much more violent. Part of that is that it’s the marquee players this year, the ones fantasy football owners are obsessed with, so we notice their absences more than roster fringe players. Part of it is that injuries are contagious, and once a player has one, he’s more susceptible to others.
Whatever it is, the sport can’t continue at its current trajectory. From 2002, when the NFL expanded to 32 teams, until 2014, injuries were on a constant rise in terms of both reported injuries and weeks missed due to injury, according to FootballOutsiders.com, a site devoted to football statistics and analysis. For those interested, concussion numbers followed a similar trajectory but have declined since 2012, a sign that better tackling techniques are actually being implemented. And so cutting down on injuries doesn’t necessarily require eliminating tackling, as the CFL has done in its practices. What it does mean is reducing that risk to players, through a series of rule changes.
Maybe it’s stricter punishments for players committing late or unnecessary hits,whether that be longer suspensions or higher fines. Maybe its finally eliminating kickoff returns, where players charge head on into one another at top speeds, and just starting drives at the 25. Maybe it’s a shorter preseason, so players don’t have to make themselves vulnerable for glorified scrimmages.
Again, no one has the perfect answer to solve injuries, and really there isn’t a true solution. There are only steps to reduce that risk, actions to keep players like Kuechly and Rodgers and Watt on the field more often.
Injuries have always been a part of sports, and they always will be – but accepting that fact doesn’t mean accepting the epidemic that’s ravaging the NFL this season.