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Why do sports teams and players hide injuries?

Teams and players alike have incentives to play and win as many games as possible. Incentives built into contracts are prevalent in professional sports, but collegiate athletes also face pressure to perform, be considered a “good teammate,” and to ensure that they remain on scholarship. We hear stories all the time that an athlete has found a way to persevere through a hardship, whether it be health related or a family related issue, and they are recognized for their hard work and determination for the greater good of the team or organization. But what if the short-term success will have major long-term health ramifications? Is it worth it to have temporary success with the long-term issues to follow?

Should athletes wait to play until they feel 100% healthy, or get back on the playing field as quickly as possibly regardless of their health for immediate team success?

You’ve heard it before: The ‘player’ playing through an injury is viewed as a “warrior” who sacrificed their immediate and long-term health for the greater good of the team. But playing through pain is rooted in more than just a warrior mentality. A player may feel ashamed by not continuing to participate even when they are less effective on the playing field. Most athletes would want to be physically dragged off the field rather than voluntarily stop playing because of an injury. A player doesn’t want to be viewed as a weak link to the team or University.  A player’s mentality to play through injuries is a mix of fear, pride, and shame, that almost always has long term physical consequences.

Why would a team or school hide an injury from their own players? Has a player ever been denied the truth about his medical condition?

An answer may be found in this former player’s lawsuit against Notre Dame. Doug Randolph says he suffered permanent nerve damage due to negligence from the University’s medical and coaching staff. In a September 2015 practice, Randolph suffered from numbness in his upper extremities after receiving a hit in a practice drill. In his lawsuit, Randolph states that he reported his symptoms to the team trainer, who said numbness after such an impact were rare and cleared Rudolph to continue practice. The player continued to feel numbness after further impact in practice and was finally given an MRI.

The team trainer told Randolph that the MRI did not show abnormalities and that it was safe for him to play. By the end of the 2015 season, however, Randolph’s condition had deteriorated to the point that he experienced complete extremity numbness without any impact at all. A second MRI revealed spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spine that puts pressure on the nerves). A third doctor told Randolph that continuing to play football after his symptoms started likely caused permanent nerve damage in his neck. A fourth doctor, a neurologist with access to Randolph’s first MRI results, told Randolph he should not have been cleared to play in September of 2015, and should never play football again.

The lawsuit alleges that if Randolph had been told the truth, “his football career would have ended on that date and all subsequent injuries and permanent damage he has endured would have never occurred.”

The university issued a press release calling the allegations  “baseless.”

Professional athletes also must stay on the field to be a viewed as a team player. Unlike collegiate athletes, professionals are paid so they may feel more obligated to play through injuries. Going through the pain-management process is the key to survival for professional athletes to feed their families. Players resort to pain injections and use game-day management to help them perform their best regardless of long-term health implications. Every veteran we’ve spoken to has said the same thing: They play for fear that a younger player will take their role and they’ll be out on the Free Agent market.

In another post to follow we will discuss the injections and pain-relieving pills that are provided on game day. The NFL’s drug of choice, Toradol.

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