Why do sports fans like injuries? Are they evil?

Dear Sports Fan,

My partner seems to really enjoy when an athlete gets hurt playing their sport. Usually it’s when it’s an opponent but sometimes even a player on the team he roots for. What’s up with that? Why do sports fans like injuries? Are they evil?


Dear Violet,

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot over the past couple of weeks, since the National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs started. Even though I’ve been a hockey fan for over twenty years now, the intensity, violence, and sheer excitement of the playoffs surprises me every year. Injuries are one of the most noticeable ways in which the playoff games differ from the regular season games. Hockey playoffs are set up as best four game out of seven series between two teams. During the course of one of these playoff series, the injury rate for players seems to approach 100%. Just off the top of my head, from the series I was following most closely, I can think of countless times when players got hit in the face with sticks or with the puck, injuries resulting from players blocking shots and taking the puck off a unpadded or insufficiently padded area, twisted knees, and crunched shoulders. And of course, the dreaded specter of concussions looms over hockey as it does every collision sport.

All of these things happen during regular season hockey games but not nearly as often as they do during the playoffs. Your question begs me to consider my love for the playoffs and their higher rate of injury — am I a masochist? or is there another reason for enjoying seeing other people get hurt?

Over the years on this blog, I’ve suggested that one of the primary and primal reasons why people love watching sports is because they enjoy watching other people do things they absolutely could never do themselves. In this case, I think there’s another similar rationale that comes into play. People love watching sports because they enjoy watching other people do things they absolutely would never do themselves. The thrill of watching other people in danger and the admiration of our sport heroes courage are palpable. A hockey player who slides in front of a 100 mph slap shot, risking broken bones, smashed teeth, or worse simply to prevent his goalie from needing to make a save is doing something as unthinkable to most sports fans as LeBron James dunking a basketball or Bryce Harper hitting a home run. The distance between us and the hockey player is simply mental, not physical. Hockey injuries are a visual reminder of the mental distance between NHL players and normal fans.

The other aspect of enjoying injuries, especially in hockey, is that they, and how quickly hockey players return to play from suffering them, are a testament to how much hockey players care about winning. Sports fans live with the constant nagging fear that in the entire ecosystem of sports, they care more than the owners, coaches, general managers, players, and media members. It’s okay to be the person who cares the most about something, but when you care the most and have the least control over the outcome of something, you’re generally the rube. The way that hockey players play in the playoffs — recklessly, relentlessly, and despite injury — shows that they care just as much as the fans.

So, the next time your partner gets excited by blood dripping onto the ice, just know that he sees that as a sign that his passion is matched by the players he roots for and that he is admiring someone for doing something he would never, ever do.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why don't hockey teams announce injuries like football?

Dear Sports Fan,

Have you been watching the Stanley Cup Finals this year? I’m curious about the Tampa Bay Lightning goalie. He’s obviously injured but no one will say how. All they say is that he has a “lower body injury.” Why don’t hockey teams announce injuries like football?


Dear Meredith,

I have seen some of the Stanley Cup Finals this year. They’ve been exciting! Among the most suspenseful parts of the series has been watching Ben Bishop try to play through whatever injury he has. During Game Two, he was forced out of the game twice. He made it through Game Three despite seemingly struggling to move side to side or get back up to his feet from the ground. He sat out Game Four completely and watched his backup, Andrei Vasilevskiy, play only moderately well in a loss. At the time of writing this post, his status for Game Five, tonight, is still unknown. Equally unknown is what, exactly, is wrong with him.

Information about injuries to hockey players is usually hard to come by. That’s never more true than during the playoffs. Since 2008, teams have not been required to give the media or the league any information about player injures although they are required not to release misleading information. Most of the time, teams do give out some information. The “lower body injury” language that you referred to in your question is a hockey classic. “Lower body” or “upper body”  is all we normally get. Sometimes, as is the case with Bishop, teams don’t even specify the hemisphere of the injury. The only thing the Tampa Bay Lightning have officially said about Bishop is that he has an “unspecified injury.”

Theoretically, the reason for this stonewalling is to protect the injured player. It’s commonly thought that if an opposing team knows that Player A’s left knee is hurt or her right arm, they will target that specific spot for extra abuse in the form of legal checks or illegally thrown elbows or slashing sticks. There could also be tactical considerations. Some injuries limit what a player can do on the ice — maybe a player with in injured wrist will have trouble lifting the puck on shots. If that news gets out there, the opposing goalie will know to concentrate on covering the bottom of the net.

Of course, with the availability and malleability of video these days, every play of every game can be dissected from any number of angles. If a player gets hurt in a game, it’s usually going to be obvious what limb or joint is the injured body part. Even when that is the case, most teams continue the upper body/lower body charade. I’ve seen obvious injures, like when a player blocks a shot with his left foot and then limps off the ice. What then, could be the point of classifying that injury as a “lower body injury” instead of a “left foot injury.”

In cases where the injury is obvious, the obfuscation can only be for one of three reasons:

  • As security theater. I don’t think players are dumb enough to believe that if their coach doesn’t tell the media the nature of an obvious injury, no one will know what it is, but it probably still makes them happier than hearing their coach talk about it.
  • It’s a way to create and maintain a team identity. Taking a stand against the media is a classic page in every coach’s book for creating a sense of team.
  • It’s easier. Instead of talking about the obvious injuries and going mute when a non-obvious injury happens, it’s just easier to say nothing about everything all the time.

The only reason we expect teams to go public with the nature of injuries is that the National Football League requires their teams to do so. Why? Is it for the enjoyment of fans? Not really. It’s all about gambling. Sports books cannot and will not set lines if they don’t know whether an important player will play in an upcoming game. Forcing teams to release injury information facilitates sports betting which always has been and continues to be one of the big drivers of attention to sports. Even though the NFL refuses to endorse gambling on their sport, their policy on injury information suggests otherwise. Betting on hockey is big business but it’s not nearly as big as football betting is, and perhaps the NHL doesn’t feel quite the same pressure to pander to the gambling industry.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Why are there so many injuries in the NBA these days?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why are there so many injuries in the NBA these days?


Dear Adam,

It does seem like every time you turn your head, another high profile basketball player goes down with an injury, doesn’t it? Just in this year’s playoffs, we’ve seen significant injuries to Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Korver, Chris Paul, Demarre Carroll, Dwight Howard, Paul Milsap, John Wall, and Mike Conley Jr. Just yesterday, the New York Times ran an article by Scott Cacciola entitled, As N.B.A. Playoff Injuries Pile Up, Team’s Are in Survival Mode. Before I launch into an answer, I’d like to stipulate that I don’t really know why there are more injuries. I’m not sure anyone does — at least, I can’t find anything definitive out there. There seems to be a consensus growing that the NBA would be a safer place for its players if it would shorten its regular season from 82 games to a number in the 60s or 70s. Implicit in that suggestion is the idea that what’s causing increased injury rates is the total number of minutes that players play each year. This belief is shared by coaches like San Antonio Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich, who carefully limit their best players’ playing time, even if it means holding them out of entire games.

Within every sport is long-running war between offense and defense. The battles in this metaphorical war are played out on fields and courts and rinks but they are fought not just by players but through rules, tactics, and strategies. In basketball, the war has long been slanted towards the offense but defense has slowly been pulling itself back into contention over the past twenty five years. As Bill Simmons points out in a column of his which addresses this question, the average number of points per game has fallen from 108 in 1998 to 98 in 2013. This rise in the effectiveness of defense has happened despite rule changes throughout the 1990s and 2000s that were intended to “open up the game”. How has it happened? The short answer is that a combination of technology and new analytic approaches to thinking about basketball have led coaches to invent more effective defensive tactics and demand consistent execution and effort from their players. As scoring has gotten harder, offenses have had to respond by becoming faster and more innovative on offense; using picks and other tactics to generate open shots. If you were to visualize the change the arms race between offense and defense has wrought on basketball from a bird’s eye view, you’d see that it’s made basketball faster and more chaotic with players banging into each other at higher rates and velocities. Basketball seems to have become a more dangerous sport.

If this is true, than limiting the number of minutes a basketball player plays in a given game or the number of games they play per year is very much the wrong thing to do. It may be effective in the short term — and San Antonio’s success with their minute-limiting strategy suggests that it is and has inspired many copycat teams — but it’s bad for the sport. Limiting players will only result in fewer injuries if they continue to play the way they have before, just for fewer minutes. This is not a given in the world of competitive sports, where winning is everything. For historic perspective, look at what happened to ice hockey in the 1920s and 30s as it transitioned from a game where the best players played all or a majority of the game to one where it was normal to play only a third of the game. Hockey players simply used their extra energy to go faster and harder. Nowadays hockey players rocket off their benches, play 45 seconds to a minute at a time, and hockey has become one of the most dangerous sports out there. In my series of articles on brain injuries and the NFL I argued that this same phenomenon is responsible for the danger in football. Too many substitutions and too little actual game-play has made football into a series of high intensity and high danger bursts of activity. It’s difficult to imagine how to make football safer at this point (I recommend reducing its roster size from 53 to 20) but it’s easy to see how basketball could become more dangerous in the same way. A vicious cycle that could take the sport there has already begun. Defense gets better, so offenses have to try harder and get trickier. This makes the sport more taxing and dangerous for its players. As a result, players play less. This allows them to play even harder, which makes it more dangerous, which players play less, which…

The future is a scary place but it doesn’t need to be that way. If NBA owners, coaches, players, and fans resist the urge to change too much, too fast, an equilibrium will probably naturally occur.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to save football: a solution to brain injuries and concussions

The National Football League has a complicated problem. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the league will disappear into oblivion if it can’t find a way to change its product so that football stops killing its workforce without ruining its entertainment value. My favorite simple solution is to reduce the roster size of football teams. From the 53 active players a team is allowed today, I propose reducing the number to 20. This single change will make football a safer and more interesting sport. Think of it as one small step for a rules committee but one giant step for football.

In four posts over the last week, we’ve established the need for football to evolve and explained some of the important factors that constrain how this can be done. Brain injuries are a serious problem for the long term health of football players, whether in the form of concussions or subconcussive injuries. We also know how and when brain injuries happen during a football game. The majority of subconcussive impacts happen in the clash between offensive linemen and defensive linemen, and that concussions are caused primarily when players collide at great speed or can’t prepare themselves for a collision. We chronicled football’s long history of changing rules to protect players from the most violent forms of physical contact, and we discovered that these rules largely made the game more dangerous in terms of concussions by allowing players greater freedom to speed up before hitting or being hit by an opponent. While we are unlikely to take back rules that protect football players’ knees, shoulders, and faces, it is hard to imagine further restricting the game by layering on another set of rules for preventing brain injuries. If football continues on without addressing these problems, it risks having no future at all. If we’re going to fix football, we need to think bigger than that. Or, as it may be in my suggestion, smaller.

Reduce the roster size? Why?

There’s a saying in football, “Speed kills.” In a tactical sense, this phrase means that a fast player, usually a wide receiver or running back on offense, can ruin even the best defensive plan and win a game for his team. What’s also true is that speed is the primary factor in the potentially widespread brain injuries that threaten the future of football. The speed of the game is why wide receivers and defensive backs have no time to brace themselves before they collide and why they are the two most commonly concussed positions. It’s why players can’t avoid kneeing their teammates in the back of the head as they run by. Speed kills.

Speed, not simple physicality, is the reason that football has the highest incidence of concussions of all sports. If it were simply a question of how physical a sport is, then wrestling would top the list. If we could magically slow football down, like a record on a turntable, we could keep the sport we love and rid it of the cancer tearing it apart from within. The easiest way to make football safer is to slow it down.

The problem is: how can you slow football down? I’m not the only one to ask this question. Malcolm Gladwell asked it in his landmark 2009 New Yorker article on this topic: “But how do you insure, in a game like football, that a player is never taken by surprise?” In considering this problem, I asked myself,”What is the biggest factor contributing to football’s speed?”

The reason why football is such a fast game is because its players are able to go at full speed almost all the time. Football players are underutilized. That is, football has less active time than other sports. Active play also takes up a smaller percentage of game time than other sports. Football has larger rosters than other sports and players play a dramatically lower percentage of the game than athletes in other sports. We’ll go into all of this in some detail below. As a result, football players are able to get to full speed and power on every play. They explode off the line of scrimmage, they launch themselves into tackles, they churn their legs, grinding out every inch of every play.

In addition to having the energy to go all out on every play, football’s luxurious roster size gives players the ability to become highly specialized. Players who play offense do not play defense. Players who play offensive line do not run with the ball or catch passes. Players who play cornerback would be lost if asked to play even a position as similar as safety. Teams have players who play defensive end basically only when they know the other team is going to pass. Teams have slot receivers and outside receivers, blocking tight ends and receiving tight ends. Each role on a football team favors a particular body type. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be done by an unusually shaped person, but there is an ideal.

In his brilliant book, The Sports Gene, David Epstein writes about the “big bang of bodies” that occurred in the mid-20th century. As sports leagues became simultaneously more accessible to people of different backgrounds (both non-North Americans and people of color) and exponentially more financially rewarding to players, the diversity of body types across all athletes grew and the specialization of body types in particular sports or positions rocketed. Nowhere is this more obvious than in football, where the average running back today is 5’11” and 215 pounds while the average tackle on the offensive line is 6’5” and 313 pounds.

With few exceptions, specialization has meant increasingly enormous players. Craig M. Booth tracked player weight by position back to the 1950s and created a set of wonderful charts to visualize the changes. The increase in size over time, especially among the largest players on the field, the offensive and defensive linemen, is remarkable. Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton wrote about this in a piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2013: “When I entered pro football in 1961, every member of my offensive line weighed less than 250 pounds. In my last year, 1978, our biggest linemen were only around 260 pounds. No Super Bowl-winning team had a 300-pounder on its roster until the 1982 Washington Redskins. Now it is unusual for a team to have fewer than 10 300-pounders.“

Tarkenton speculates that the increase in size is due to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. It’s certainly possible, and stronger enforcement of existing rules against performance-enhancing drugs would be a good thing. Whether or not drugs are involved in helping players bulk up, it’s football’s specialization that enables them to succeed at that size. Ben McGrath, writing for the New Yorker about the future of football agrees: “with specialization came increased speed and intensity, owing, in part, to reduced fatigue among the players, as well as skill sets and body types suited to particular facets of the game.”

The best way, perhaps the only way, to slow football down is to tire out its players. Reducing roster sizes will force players to play more, which will make them play at a slower pace. As a bonus, it will encourage them to train for endurance, lowering their weight and therefore the power they have to hit each other. Even a marginally slower football would be much safer. Remember, these are elite athletes with incredible reflexes. Give them an extra few tenths of a second to see a hit coming and to prepare for it and they can usually prevent a concussion.

A great part about this evolution of football is that it will make the game more interesting to follow. That may seem like small potatoes next to making it safer for its players and by doing so, ensuring the sport’s continued existence, but it’s something almost no other solution can claim. Let’s theorize about the effect of reducing NFL rosters from 46 to 20.

How would reducing roster size change football?

20 still seems like a lot of players, especially if only 11 are needed on the field at one time. It’s two short of twice the number of players you would need if you wanted everyone to play only on offense or only on defense and if you ignored special teams plays and never wanted to have the flexibility to use different formations on offense or defense. I imagine in reality, this is roughly how rosters would break down.

  • 2 quarterbacks (probably still specialists)
  • 7 little guys – wide receivers and running backs who also play defensive back
  • 7 big guys – offensive linemen and defensive linemen
  • 3 medium guys – linebackers or hybrid offensive players, a little like Charles Clay or Marcel Reece today on the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders who play a little fullback, running back, and tight end.
  • 1 kicker/punter

Of the 20 players on the roster, 17 might regularly play both sides of the ball. That’s a big change! It would mean more than doubling the number of plays per game for most NFL players. How would teams react?

Luckily for us, we do have some clue about what would happen. College football is a great experimental sandbox for the NFL. Players in college are smaller and slower than NFL players and because of that, a wider range of strategies is tried and proven successful. Mike Leach is one of the most extreme football scientists who experiment in college football. When he came to national attention in the mid-2000s, Leach was head coach of Texas Tech. His approach to football offense was to raise the tempo of the game until his team was regularly running around twice the number of plays compared to a normal offense; and twice the number of plays that a normal defense was prepared to play in a single game.

In 2005, Michael Lewis wrote an article about Leach for the New York Times magazine and described what happened to the Texas A&M defense when they were forced to defend Texas Tech’s high tempo offense:

The A.& M. front line appeared tired. “The minute you see the defensive line bent over and their hands on their hips,” Hodges told me, “that’s when you know you have them.” The A.& M. linemen were a lot bigger than the Texas Tech linemen. They may or may not have been fatter – Leach insists they were – but their bodies were clearly designed for a different sort of football game than this frenetic one. “That’s the risk of playing 330-pound guys,” Leach said later. “You get good push, but if you got to run around a lot, you get tired.” Before the game, Leach had said to Hodges: “Get those fat guys up front and make them run. They’re already a little slow. By play 40, they’ll be immobilized.” That was one reason he kept sending so many receivers on deep routes: to force the defense to run with them.

Teams like Texas A&M never had an incentive to change the makeup of their roster because they only played at Leach’s pace once a year and against teams their own size the rest of the time. If NFL rosters were cut to 20, teams would have to adjust. A 6’5” 330-pound man can only play so hard and so fast for so long.

There’s no way that I can accurately predict what hundreds of coaches, all working overtime on figuring out the best way to win given the new realities of the sport, would come up with, but I believe these are some likely tactical outcomes:

  • Teams would choose to hire smaller players. The average size of players, particularly offensive linemen, defensive linemen, and linebackers, would come down significantly. 330-pound players would become obsolete and 300-pound players would be relatively rare. Not only would this be because of the greater aerobic demands of the game but also because smaller rosters will reward versatility. In a pinch caused by injured teammates, players will need to be able to play many positions.
  • Most teams would play at a slower tempo. On average, the time between plays would go up as players leverage the full play clocks to catch their breath.
  • A few teams would sell out on a high tempo offense, roster even smaller players who can run all day, and try to do what Mike Leach did to Texas A&M.
  • Regardless of tempo, players will be significantly slower. They’re more likely to be fatigued in-game. Just that factor will slow them down as they conserve their energy for the fourth quarter. Also, because of the increased demand on their endurance, they will train more for that and less for explosiveness. Football players will carry less fast-twitch muscle and much less fat.
  • Players would enter games carrying preexisting injures much less frequently. It’s harder to play through pain when you’re playing twice the number of plays and it’s more risky for a team to bring an injured player into a game when it has so many fewer available substitutions if he cannot finish the game.
  • A greater number of strategies would be used by teams. By encouraging smaller players and slowing the game down just a bit, the field will effectively expand. Tactics like running an option offense, which work today in college football but not the NFL because players in the NFL are too big and fast, will work better in this future NFL. This will make coaches who are great strategists even more important than they are today.

The simple rule change and its likely strategic adjustments will single-handedly make football safer. It will reduce the effect of subconcussive brain injuries as well as concussions.

Is football really less active than other sports?

We think of football as one of the toughest, most physically demanding sports out there. In some ways, this is true. There is no doubt that football players are incredible athletes. Football players run faster, hit harder, and catch better than any other athletes. They endure more spectacular impacts than people in most other sports as well. It’s also true that football players play through injuries that would leave players in other sports sidelined for days and normal people laid up for weeks. In one particular set of ways, though, football is surprising in how little it demands from its players. Football players don’t have to play very much football. It’s this factor that reducing football’s roster size would counteract. Although it sounds dramatic, the figures that follow will show how doing this would be bringing football closer to other sports. What’s actually dramatic is how much of an outlier football is today.

Football has the shortest season of all American professional sports by far: only 16 games. Compared to Major Leagues Soccer’s 34, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League’s 82 or Major League Baseball’s astounding 162, 16 is a tiny figure. Football players expect to play once a week for around 20 weeks. Players of other sports play several times a week over a longer period.

Football is not the shortest game in terms of game time but look beyond the clock and you see another story. If you focus only on the time that players are actively playing, football has by far the least actual play time. An NFL game is said to have just 11 minutes of action within the 60 minutes of game time. Soccer games are estimated to have 68 minutes of action out of 90 (yes, make your zero minutes of action joke now). I wasn’t able to find a stat for basketball or hockey but because their official clocks stop whenever there is a whistle, it’s safe to assume that they are close to 100% active.

The chart below shows that football players play less and do it over a longer time than players in other major sports. To show this in a single metric I divided the amount of active time during each sport by the amount of real time from the start of a game to the end. As you can see, football players are active only 6% of that time. This is far less than other sports.

Pro Sport Game Time Real Time Active Time Percent Active
Football 60 min 190 min 11 min 6%
Soccer 90 min 105 min 68 min 65%
Basketball 48 min 138 min NA (Assume 100%) 35%
Hockey 60 min 139 min NA (Assume 100%) 43%

One would be forgiven for thinking that this relative idleness makes football safer. If football is dangerous, this line of thought would say, then how can playing less of it make it more dangerous? The problem is that the less active players are during a game, the more they are able to exert themselves when they are active. A football player, playing only 6% of the time over more than three hours can exert themselves to the fullest on every play. They can go full speed and as we already discussed, speed kills.

Even six percent is actually a gross overstatement of how active a football player is during a game. Football is divided into three phases: offense, defense, and special teams. Offensive players virtually never play on defense, defensive players almost never play on offense, and special teams (for kickoffs, field goals, and punts) often are a separate group of players. At most, an offensive or defensive player will be active not for 11 minutes but for around four minutes and 40 seconds, but even that overstates how much active playing time players get because most players don’t play all the plays, even in their phase of the game. Football is a game of specialist players who are deployed when the situation calls for their skills.

Football’s specialization is made possible by the deep rosters of football teams. Football teams have the largest rosters of any sport. For every football game, a team can have 46 players on the sidelines, in pads and helmets, ready to step onto the field when needed. That’s close to double the sport with the next largest roster! Let’s see how it compares to other sports:

Pro Sport Players on Field Players Available Percent Utilized
NFL Football 11 46 24%
NHL Hockey 6 20 30%
NBA Basketball 5 13 38%
MLB Baseball 9 25 36%
English Premier League Soccer 11 25 44%

As you can see, the numerical discrepancy in utilization is not as large as it is with active playing time but it is still noticeable. College football is even worse, with rosters varying from 60 to 105 players, all eligible to play in a single game! Realistically, there are factors in other sports that artificially lower their utilization numbers. Common wisdom in the NBA says that a winning team cannot have more than a seven or eight-man rotation, nine at most. NBA teams carry 13 players but a handful of players play very little. Baseball’s roster includes a rotation of starting pitchers that only play once every five games and relief pitchers who play only small portions of games. Soccer has limited substitution rules that limit a team to three substitutions per game. So while 25 players are eligible to play in each game, only 14 may actually do so. If we take those factors into consideration, the table looks more like this:

Sport Players on Field Players Available Percent Utilized
NFL Football 11 46 24%
NHL 6 20 30%
NBA 5 9 55%
MLB (position players) 8 13 62%
EPL 11 14 79%

Hockey is the only sport close to the NFL in terms of player utilization. Hockey players, who play between one third and one half of the game in 40-second to one-minute spurts, are the second most underutilized athletes. It’s no surprise that hockey’s brain injury crisis rivals football’s.

Is this the perfect solution?

This isn’t a perfect solution. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to imagine it happening. Despite being a safety measure intended to protect football players, it would also result in the loss of three fifths of the current NFL jobs. That’s a problem! Not only would it violate the terms of the current collectively bargained agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association but it’s pretty crazy to think any future Players Association would allow it. The truth is that a combination of factors will need to be in play to solve the concussion crisis. Here are some other things that should be considered.

  • Fix the helmets. Whole essays could and have been written about just this topic but a brief summary is that football helmets have evolved to protect against cracked skulls and broken noses but not concussions. They are so good at doing the job that they were designed to do that players use them as weapons. A lighter football helmet would help prevent concussions. Creating a football helmet with no face-mask or by removing them completely might teach football players to play in a safer way. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, one college football team is already practicing without helmets.
  • Increase the penalties for dangerous play. Football could adopt something like soccer’s yellow card/red card or hockey’s power play. Both of these systems promote safer play by disproportionately penalizing the team of players who break the rules. One hockey executive also proposed fining coaches and team owners in addition to players for unsafe play.
  • Add limited substitution rules. The sport that does this today is soccer. Although soccer teams carry 25 players, they are only allowed to substitute three times during a game. The benefit of this would be that you could preserve more jobs for football players while having the same effect on the speed of the game. The downside is that, like soccer is facing now, football would face the serious issue of an injured player staying in a game because his team has run out of substitutions and cannot replace him.

Although I hope football reduces its rosters to protect players from brain injuries, I’m not holding my breath. A more realistic hope is that medicine catches up to the demands of the sport. Progress is already being made. A recent study was able for the first time to find evidence of damage in the brains of living football players. Given time and the continued incentive to study this topic, we will develop tests that can diagnose signs of future debilitating problems early enough to prevent young football players from continuing to play until their brains are irrevocably damaged.

Still, a writer can dream, can’t he? In my dream world, the NFL doesn’t wait for scientists to figure this one out. Instead, they do what the leaders of their sport have been doing for over 100 years and change the rules of the game to improve the safety of its players. The simplest solution is to reduce teams’ rosters down from 46 to 20 players. This leaves football’s core rules the same and makes football more interesting to watch. By rewarding versatility and endurance, this single change would make players lighter and slightly slower. Asking football players to do more is not an intuitive way of protecting them, but it’s the best solution out there.

Here’s to saving football! To celebrate, I’ve invented a time machine, traveled three years into the future and made a copy of a Super Bowl preview from 2018 — the year after the NFL reduced its roster size to 20. Enjoy the game, both today and in the future.

Super Bowl Preview

Thursday February 1, 2018 • Minneapolis, Minnesota,

Roster construction is the overwhelming story leading up to Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. The action on the field won’t begin until Sunday, February 4, 2018 at 6:30 p.m. ET but the games are already under way. The Super Bowl coaches don’t have to show their hands until the morning of the big game and both New England’s Bill Belichick and Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly are planning on using every minute of that time to perfect their strategies and keep the other side guessing.

We sent our best investigative football reporters to team practices this week but they came away with more questions than answers. Here are three of the hottest questions from each side of the big game.

New England Patriots

  1. Will the Patriots dress 6’5” 300 pound OT/NT Marcus Cannon or will they leave him out of the lineup and go small? The Eagles have been forcing their opponents to go small against them all season by not dressing anyone over 265 pounds. Belichick does not like to have the style of play dictated to him but it’s hard to imagine Cannon playing more than 15 or 20 plays if he is in the lineup.
  2. If New England dresses only four linemen, that’s a hint that they’ll be doing more of the flexbone/triple option plays that helped them get by the Oakland Raiders in the last round. The Patriots are fully capable of surprising us all but one would imagine that similarities between the Eagles and Raiders, who both go by the 2/7/7/4 rule would suggest a similar approach.
  3. Who will suit up at quarterback? Since Jimmy Garoppolo was injured in week 15, the Patriots have gone with a three-man rotation at QB: Cardale Jones, Julian Edelman, and Denard Robinson. Each QB/WR/RB has played in all of the Patriots playoff games and Belichick frequently mixes two or three qbs in the backfield simultaneously. After Robinson’s 4-7, 2 interception performance in the Conference Championship, there are rumors of a shortened rotation.

Philadelphia Eagles

  1. What chance does LeSean McCoy have to play this Sunday? He is said to be making good progress in recovering from the brain injury which he suffered making a game-saving tackle in the first round 34-32 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Kelly is known for having very little appetite for dressing a player carrying even a slight injury but McCoy could be the rare exception. It’s hard to imagine a more important player for the Eagles than McCoy if he could play throughout the game.
  2. How long can starting quarterback and defensive end Colin Kaepernick hold up? Word from Eagles camp is that their closer, Philip Rivers, would be available as early as the third quarter, but it’s been ten weeks since the last time they asked the 36-year-old to begin his aerial assault earlier than the fourth quarter.
  3. Will the Eagles roster a kicker after missing out on three fourth down attempts that could easily have been converted to points? Head coach Chip Kelly and OC, Mike Leach, are known for their principled stand against kicking but is the Super Bowl really time to hold to principles? 6’, 193-lb Cody Parkey is not much of a field player but did make a couple of good plays at linebacker when pressed into service during the Eagles week six game against the Washington Warriors.

How do brain injuries or concussions happen in football?

What’s the most dangerous place to be on a football field? Which positions put players in the greatest peril? What are the greatest contributing factors to the epidemic of brain injuries? Thanks to our post on what we know about the consequence of brain injuries in football, we know brain injuries are a serious concern. Today we’ll learn more about how they happen and what elements of football cause them. As a reminder, brain injuries are divided into subconcussive events and concussions. Both are problematic and both occur with disturbing regularity on a football field. Let’s take subconcussive events first.

Subconcussive impacts happen all the time in football but significantly more frequently to some players than others. If you watch an average football play, you’ll see that it begins with two lines of three to six men lined up directly opposite one another. These players are the members of the offensive and defensive lines. These guys are huge, strong, and fast. They’re like Sumo wrestlers with armor on. When the ball is snapped, they launch themselves at each other, the defenders trying to get to the quarterback or to a running back with the ball, and the offensive line trying to protect their quarterback or to shift the defenders in order to create an opening for a running back to run through. Football people sometimes refer to the action that goes on between these players as the trenches of a football game and indeed, the action when it happens, is fast and furious.

It’s not alarmist to contend that players in the offensive and defensive lines suffer a brain injury on virtually every play. Here’s how Kyle Turley, the subject of a Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker article on brain injuries describes being in the trenches of a football game: “You are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field—fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions—boom, boom, boom—lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.”

It’s possible that other players don’t perceive the common subconcussive blows in the same way as Turley. It’s possible even that some players are able to withstand the repeated demands of being a lineman without having their brain injured on every play. To be conservative, let’s assume there is some level of brain injury, even if it is imperceptible, created by every collision of this type in a football game.

Other players on the field don’t hit or get hit nearly as often. A running back may get hit one in every two or three plays. A linebacker will be involved in a tackle one in every four or five plays. A cornerback or safety even less. Wide receivers may only get hit a handful of times in a game. When it comes to subconcussive blows to the head, we’re worried mostly about linemen, running backs, and linebackers. Counterintuitively perhaps it’s wide receivers and defensive backs that suffer the most concussions.

One of the most important things to know about concussions is that the “the amount of force and the location of the impact are not necessarily correlated with the severity of the concussion or its symptoms.” Rather, it is the “amount of rotational force” that is the key cause of concussions. As this CBS news article suggests, because of this fact, football helmets may not actually do much to prevent concussions. Concussions are the result of “rotational injury… when the head rotates on the neck because of the impact, causing the brain to rotate.” Helmets do a great job of protecting against skull fractures and do a good job of preventing or lessening the impact on the brain from linear impacts that occur when a player is straight backwards.

This means that players usually do not get concussed if they can see a hit coming and have the time and freedom to prepare for the hit. A player who is hit under these ideal circumstances will face the hit, aligning his body to receive a linear as opposed to a rotational impact. The player will brace his neck, so that the force of the blow is distributed from his head, through his neck to his body. Given time, most football players can protect themselves from concussions.

Football players who do get concussions get them most frequently when they don’t see the blow coming or when they aren’t prepared for the hit. This could happen either because they don’t have time to prepare or because they choose not to for the sake of the game. Just from watching countless football games, you get a sense for which collisions are more likely to cause concussions. Those times a running back plows right into a handful of defenders and drags them a few feet before falling? They almost never result in a concussion. How about when quarterbacks are hit while throwing the ball? These hits are more likely to result in broken ribs or collarbones than concussions. In both cases, the players usually know the hit is coming. What about at the end of a play when a player on the ground is just clipped by the knee of a player running by him? That’s a problem! What about a wide receiver who leaps to catch a ball only to be met in mid-air by a defensive back catapulting himself at the receiver? Houston, we definitely have a problem, often for both players. How about a so-called blind-side hit when a player is hit from one direction while looking in the other? You guessed it, those cause concussions too.

The recurring themes for hits that cause concussions are speed and chaos. Football players get concussions most frequently from hits that they don’t know are coming or when the play is too fast for them to do their job as football players and to protect themselves. The speed and chaos of modern football have overrun the brain’s ability to track and prepare for collisions, even for the best athletes in the world.

Even NFL players agree with this suggestion. James Harrison has been one of the most obvious villains of the recent era in the NFL. A veteran linebacker who played most of his career for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harrison is known as a reckless hitter who, even for football, was known for launching himself dangerously at opposing players, using his head as a weapon. In Ben McGrath’s 2011 New Yorker article, Harrison defends himself by blaming the speed of modern football for his acts. “The game’s a lot faster than it was when [NFL director of game operations, Merton Hanks] played… When we’re right there, and it’s bang-bang, you don’t have time to adjust.”

Speed + Chaos = Concussion. It seems now like an inevitable conclusion. If we take that equation for fact, the important question becomes, how can we change football to protect its players without losing the sport’s essence? Malcolm Gladwell phrases the question like this: “How do you insure, in a game like football, that a player is never taken by surprise?” We’ll eventually answer that question in this series of articles on how to fix football. In our next installment, we’ll describe why it’s necessary to deal with this issue at all. Why should football care about brain injuries?

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Football: the good and the very, very bad

It’s been a while since I cleaned out my short-term storage box of the best articles I’ve been reading about sports. Lately it’s been mostly full of articles about football, which is no surprise considering football is the most popular sport in the country and now is a particularly exciting time for both college and professional football. The articles that I was most interested in grouped roughly into two piles: those that make football seem interesting by revealing an unexpected facet of the sport and those that reveal the corrosive nature of football as a business, especially at the college level. 

What Cowboys Have in Common With Ballerinas

by Kevin Clark for the Wall Street Journal

The Dallas Cowboys were eliminated from the playoffs this weekend but it certainly wasn’t from a lack of athletic ability or fitness. In fact, the most single spectacular athletic feat of the weekend was probably Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant’s leaping almost-catch near the end of their game against the Green Bay Packers. Was he able to do that without injuring himself because of the Cowboys innovative use of an old, low-tech ballet apparatus? 

Stretching in the NFL is a shockingly archaic endeavor, possibly the only thing in this tightly controlled game that is left up to players. So, looking for an edge, the Dallas Cowboys changed it up this year. And they started with ballet bars.

“Yeah, it’s funny to see a 300-pound guy holding on to a ballerina bar, but in the NFL, if you are going to play for any length of time, you’ve got to take care of your body,” said linebacker Cameron Lawrence. “They don’t care that it’s a ballerina bar—if it helps them, they are on it.”

Confessions of a Fixer

by Brad Wolverton for the Chronicle of Higher Education

College sports are full of hypocrisy. The adults in the room — the coaches, universities, and governing bodies like college conferences and the NCAA — make gobs of money while the kids take all the risk and do most of the hard work. Players who work on football 40+ hours per week in one of the most highly competitive workplaces in the world are also expected to be college students, even the ones who could theoretically make a living in football already if it weren’t for an NFL rule that keeps teams from drafting them until two full years after their high-school graduation. These hypocrisies are already well known and the academic short-cuts or outright cheating that they encourage should not be a surprise to anyone. The most interesting part of this article for me is how you can read between the lines and see in this story, a larger story of how colleges themselves are in a race to the bottom to attract paying but students for online courses that might not actually serve the students all that well even if they were taken honestly. It’s a discouraging mess. 

The fixer’s name is Mr. White. His side business was lucrative. One year, he says, he made more than $40,000 arranging classes. But he says money wasn’t his motive. Part of it was about the players. He believes that many would not have earned a major-college scholarship without his help.

A coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference was recruiting one of the top junior-college players in the country, but the player was short on credits. The coach called Mr. White to “get him done.” He made some students believe they were completing the classes, handing them packets of practice problems he had picked up from the math lab at his community college and making sure they logged time in study halls as if they had done the work. After they finished the packets, he would toss them in the trash. Then he would log in to BYU’s website to complete the real assignments. That’s how some coaches preferred it, he says, as it assured them there wouldn’t be any slip-ups. That also meant that the coaches didn’t have to worry about retaliation. If the players had no knowledge of the fraud, Mr. White says, they couldn’t hold it against anyone.

The Men Who Protect the Man

by Robert Mays for Grantland

In football, the “man” is frequently the quarterback. The leader of the offense, the quarterback is the most important and irreplaceable part of a football team. That’s why he’s the most tempting target for defenses to try to hit hard enough to injure or dissuade him from continuing to play as well as he would otherwise play. This dynamic makes the offensive line, the group of players charged with protecting the quarterback from opposing defenders, the most interesting people on a football team. Grantland football writer Robert Mays spent some time recently with the offensive line of the Green Bay Packers who protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and wrote this article about who they are as individuals and as a unit. 

By keeping the same five linemen almost the entire season, the Packers have been able to build their vocabulary into an entire language. “We’ve got so many dummy calls,” Sitton says. “Half the shit we say doesn’t mean a thing. It’s pretty cool when you can evolve within the season, learning a whole new thing.” In past seasons, the line has been a band forced to replace its drummer or bassist every week. The entire offense goes from writing songs to relearning chords. This year, they can riff, take chances. They can be a 1,500-pound Radiohead.

“When you get a hodgepodge line that’s changing week to week, you just kind of have to go by the base rules on a lot of plays,” Rodgers says. “The base rules are decent, but when you can incorporate your own creativity to the plays at the offensive line positions, you can really enhance them. So the communication has been amazing.”

“If we were ’N Sync,” Lang says, “[Josh would] be Justin Timberlake. He’s Frankie Valli, and we’re the Four Seasons.” Bakhtiari goes on, thinking ahead an album or two: “If he wanted to, he could go solo, and we’d all fizzle out.”

USC Football Team Doctor Admits to Ignoring FDA and NCAA Painkiller Regulations

by Aaron Gordon for Vice Sports

Football players never cease to amaze with their fearless nature and their seeming invulnerability to pain. Surely they are among the toughest athletes in the world (along with ice hockey players and ballet dancers) but this article suggests that they are also much more commonly shot up with drugs before and even during games than we might expect. This is the story of one NFL prospect who is now suing his college team for giving him irresponsible medical advice and treatment which led not only to the demise of his professional dream but also to some very serious immediate medical risk.

In some cases, the use of Toradol was prophylactic—that is, given before games in anticipation of future pain, and not to treat current injuries—and accompanied by little or no physical examination of players… Although the Minnesota pregame shot provided temporary relief, Armstead was still in pain during halftime, at which point he said Tibone “poked and prodded my shoulder, and he stuck a needle in my shoulder.” Again, Armstead said, his pain became manageable for a brief period, but by the fourth quarter he was taken out of the game because his left arm hurt so much that he couldn’t use it at all.

After the season ended, Armstead reported to the University Park Health Center three times between February 4 and February 23 of 2011, complaining of constant chest pain… As a result of this diagnosis, two of Armstead’s visits to the Health Center resulted in additional Toradol injections. By the beginning of March, Armstead’s condition worsened. A MRI exam revealed that he had suffered an acute anterior apical myocardial infarction, more commonly known as a heart attack. Myocardial infarctions are specifically mentioned by the FDA as a possible risk of Toradol use, made likelier by repeated off-label use and combining the painkiller with other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as Ibuprofen and Naproxen, drugs that Tibone and USC training staff also had administered to Armstead during the season.

In his deposition, Tibone said he didn’t “agree with” FDA warnings about Toradol’s cardiovascular risks. He did not provide supporting evidence for his position, admitting that before and during the period he gave the drug to Armstead and other USC players he: (a) conducted no research or surveys on Toradol’s adverse effects; (b) read no peer-reviewed journal articles on the matter prior to Armstead’s heart attack; (c) did not investigate the drug beyond talking to NFL trainers he knew and having a brief, informal conversation with a friend who is a cardiovascular surgeon.

Rethinking injuries in sports

Injuries are a sad reality of sports. As athletes, even amateur ones, we know they’re coming and we just hope they’re not too painful or debilitating. As fans, we are transfixed at the edge of our seats whenever someone on the teams we root for goes down in a clump, grabbing their ankle or knee. As fantasy sports owners, we’re a step removed from the injuries and they transform into simple tactical obstacles that need to be overcome. 

One of my favorite parts of writing Dear Sports Fan is reading other great writers cover sports in a way that’s accessible and compelling for the whole spectrum from super-fans to lay people. Here are selections from the best articles of the last week on the subject of injuries:

This article subverts everything we think about athletic injuries by focusing on the organ donor whose tendon was put into NFL quarterback Carson Palmer’s knee in 2005 and the emotional impact of this on her family and Palmer himself. It’s a brilliant article not least because of its restatement of the age old grandfather’s ax paradox. Can a donor live on through her donee’s achievements? What happens when her tissue is replaced?

Carson Palmer’s lasting connection

by David Fleming for ESPN

De Rossi’s final gesture of organ and tissue donation would eventually save or improve the lives of more than 50 people. One of them just happened to be a Pro Bowl quarterback in need of a new knee. “A cadaver didn’t save Carson’s career, that was Julie, a person called Julie,” says Dorothy Hyde. “There was absolutely no one else on this planet like her.”

Twenty-two months after she was killed, 
De Rossi’s Achilles tendon became part of Palmer’s knee. Within five months, Palmer was already jogging. He was back under center for the Bengals 2006 season opener without missing a single game. “It’s a little eerie, but it’s also pretty amazing,” Palmer said in an interview just two days before he re-tore his ACL. “Dorothy’s daughter lives on; a part of her is still moving and running and cutting. All the things my knee is doing, she’s doing too.”

His latest injury has severed his physical link to De Rossi… Yet the deeper connection between Palmer and De Rossi remains intact. Shortly after learning about Julie while recuperating from his 2006 surgery in California, Palmer asked his wife, Shaelyn, to drive him to the DMV. Eight years later, when he reported to a hospital for his latest surgery, he would have been asked to provide identification and any pertinent medical information. Palmer would have reflexively reached into his wallet, pulled out his driver’s license and handed it to a hospital administrator.

On the lower-left-hand corner of the ID, just next to Palmer’s smiling, tan face, is a tiny dark-pink circle with a single word written in small, thick black letters.


Questionable to Start is a great blog I discovered this week on my voyages around the internet. Its creator started with a simple observation that mainstream media’s reporting on injuries in the NFL was not based on historic data. So, he decided to collect the data, build a database, and now he writes about NFL injuries from an informed perspective unavailable to most. This article is a response to some criticism for a debunking statement Questionable to Start made about quarterback Nick Foles’ broken collar-bone — a debunking statement that turned out to have been correct. 

Are all injuries really different?

by Craig Zumsteg for his blog Questionable to Start

Yes, all injuries are absolutely different. While two players might both have collarbone fractures, those fractures are often in different locations. Different levels of stress and mechanics caused those two injuries, so the extent of the injury is usually different as well. Different players heal and respond to treatment in different ways.

I have examples of two recent quarterbacks who suffered fractures to their left, non-throwing, collarbone. One returned after missing seven weeks. The other was close to returning around eight weeks, then suffered a setback and ended up missing the ten games before the season was over. Yes, I admit this is a dangerously small sample size.

With those two examples in mind, something rings false about any estimate that includes four weeks as a possibility. Yes, I guess that’s physically and medically possible, but it is not something we’ve seen from a quarterback… In order for me to believe that a four-week return is possible for Foles, I would like to understand the specifics of his injury. Why is Foles injury half as crippling as the ones Aaron Rodgers or Tony Romo suffered? It is entirely possible that Foles has a smaller fracture. Or that his fracture is at a location more likely to heal quickly. Or some combo of the two. But, without those specific details, I think that a historical comparison approach is the best tool we have available.

What is we could prevent injuries before they happened? We would have fewer beautiful stories like our first story today and less need for intelligent statistical coverage of injuries like in our second. Still, I think we can all agree that fewer injuries is a good thing. This article is about a revolutionary attempt to prevent injuries in downhill skiing — one of the most dangerous sports out there.

Airbag System Approved for World Cup Ski Races

by the Associated Press in The New York Times

Perhaps if Lindsey Vonn had a big cushy air bag to fall on when she tore two ligaments in her right knee she wouldn’t have missed the Sochi Olympics… Looking back, it’s nearly impossible to calculate what effect — if any — an air bag would have had in those crashes. But with a radical air bag system being approved for use in World Cup and lower level races beginning in January, Alpine skiing could get a lot safer.

The system — which entails putting an air bag in the neck area of athletes’ back protectors — was developed by Italian manufacturer Dainese in coordination with the FIS. It inflates when skiers lose control and are about to crash.

What the Reaction to Paul George's Leg Injury Means

During a televised intra-squad scrimmage of the U.S. Men’s National Basketball team in their preparation for the upcoming World Cup of Basketball, Paul George, a star basketball player, broke his leg. The word used most frequently to describe the injury seems to be “horrific.” It was an open fracture of the tibia and fibula. Almost as soon as George had been carted off the court and the rest of the scrimmage canceled, the predominant story among the media became variations on the question, “What will Paul George’s leg injury mean for the future participation of NBA players in international competitions?” The thought running through my mind has been, “What does the reaction to Paul George’s leg injury mean? Why is this the media’s reaction? What can we learn from it?

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Charlotte Bobcats
Is the story of Paul George’s injury about his career or the Indiana Pacers?

The implication of the Paul George story that’s been percolating is this: now that a star player has been injured in a national team activity, NBA players should stop taking part in international competition. Who does this make sense for? There’s three main actors in this power play. There’s the NBA owners who employ the players. There’s the players. And then there’s the fans. Not to get all political science on you here, but they nicely represent Capital, Labor, and Consumer. Let’s go through this one at a time:

The Fans

Fans of the Indiana Pacers, the team that Paul George plays for in the NBA, are upset today. They just watched the best player on a team, someone who they’ve grown fond of after watching him play since he was twenty years old, snap his leg on national television. George will probably be okay, the surgery is said to have been successful but it’s not clear how okay the Pacers will be. They’ve been the second best team for two years running in the Eastern Conference, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll even be that good when George comes back in a year. Their second best player, David West, is in the final third of his career and may not be as good then. They lost their third best player, Lance Stephenson, in free agency, and their fourth best player, Roy Hibbert, is a riddle wrapped up in a seven foot enigma.

All that said, it’s hard to argue that the fans as a whole lose from international play. Basketball fans love basketball and international basketball is wonderful to follow and to watch. Furthermore, if you’re a fan of one of the other fourteen teams in the Eastern Conference… well, you’re not crowing about it but your team’s path to the finals just got a little easier. As a consumer of basketball, international play is a net win for you, a fact even the most depressed Indiana Pacers fan would admit if you stuck her with truth serum.

The Players

Paul George certainly lost out in this particular case. His leg is broken and he won’t be able to play basketball for another year. The players as a group, however, only gain by playing internationally — with a few exceptions. The first thing to understand about this is that contracts in the NBA, unlike those in the NFL, are guaranteed. George’s contract, which begins this year, runs for five years and $91.5 million dollars. His injury does nothing to affect that. Of the other players playing in that scrimmage, only one of them is slated to become a free agent in the next twelve months. Basketball players, even during the offseason, play basketball. It’s just what they do. They may take some vacation but most of the time during the offseason, they’re in gyms, playing high intensity basketball against the best players in the world. This injury could have happened in any practice at any time and the consequences physically and financially would have been the same. Playing in international competitions doesn’t increase the risk of injury for most players and it has great potential value in the form of professional development and exposure for sponsorship or endorsement deals.

The one major exception to this are players who, for whatever reason, feel or are compelled to play in these competitions, even if they are injured. Yao Ming, the Chinese great, forced his 7’6″ body up and down the court every summer for China and it almost definitely shortened his career and lowered his earnings in the long run. The solution to this isn’t to get pros out of these competitions, it’s for countries not to force their players to play.

One last point about the players. The likely alternative to having professionals play in these competitions would be to have amateurs, mostly college kids to play. The cost-benefit for them is significantly worse than for the professionals. College athletes don’t have guaranteed contracts. In fact, they’re not “paid” at all. If a college athlete broke his leg like George did, he might never get drafted, never make a fortune, never have a dream career. Let’s not have the grownups vacate something not-so-risky so that kids can take it up even though it’s more risky for them.

The NBA Owners

NBA owners don’t make any money directly from international competitions. It’s probably worth writing that again. NBA owner don’t make any money directly from international competitions. The downside of their players playing is exactly what happened on Friday. The Pacers owner is likely to make tens of million dollars fewer this year without Paul George than he would have with him playing. The upside? It’s hard to measure. Professionals playing in international competition definitely attracts new fans to basketball who then become fans of the NBA. Players who come through uninjured often benefit from the experience and become more valuable employees.

That’s why the story of this injury quickly became “Will this mean that NBA players no longer are going to play in international competition?” It’s because team owners, who employ the players, don’t want their players to play in international competition. At least they don’t want the players to play (to be allowed to play if we tell the truth about it,) without the owners getting paid.


As fans, I don’t think we should take the owners side on this one. I love watching international sports with the best players in the world competing against each other and it’s really not a bad deal for the players, not even for Paul George, truth be told. So resist the urge to take up the owners side on this issue!

How Tough is Too Tough in Sports?

There’s a great scene in the Marx Brothers movie, Monkey Business, where a mobster mistakenly hires Chico and Harpo as henchmen. He asks Chico how tough the two of them are and Chico responds:

You pay little bit, we’re little bit tough.
You pay very much, very much tough.
You pay too much, we’re too much tough.
How much you pay?
I pay plenty.
Then we’re plenty tough.

We all know that people who play sports are tough — it’s one of the things most sports fans admire about the players — but how tough is too tough? And what is the right way to respond as fans to that toughness?

Boston Bruins v Vancouver Canucks - Game Seven
If Rich Peverley does have to hang them up for good, hopefully having won the cup a few years ago with Boston will soften the blow of early retirement.

This question came to the forefront this week when Rich Peverley, an ice hockey player on the Dallas Stars, collapsed during a game. His heart had stopped but thanks to the quick action of team doctors and his teammates who immediately piled onto the ice en masse in a successful effort to stop the game and signal the seriousness of the situation as quickly as possible, Peverley’s heart was restarted and he is in stable condition. Peverley had been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in a pre-season physical and had a procedure designed to fix it. The game was (rightly, in my mind) postponed by the NHL following the incident.

Soon after it was reported that Peverley was in stable condition, a story started floating around, sourced from the Dallas Stars twitter account:


As Deadspin commented, “The most Hockey dude ever is in stable condition at a Dallas hospital.”

And indeed, there is something admirable about Peverley’s determination to get back into the game at all costs. It’s similar to the admiration we have for hockey players like Patrice Bergeron who played the final game of last year’s playoffs for the Boston Bruins with broken ribs, torn rib cartilage, torn rib muscles, and a separated shoulder. It’s the admiration we have for basketball players who “walk-off” ankles that we’ve just seen bend in ways that shouldn’t allow their owners to be upright, much less playing a sport. It’s not limited to men either, who can forget gymnast Kerri Strug landing a vault on a broken ankle for the U.S. Women’s gymnastics team or U.S. Women’s National Team player Abby Wambach going up for headers while blood streamed down her head from an earlier injury. A big part of a fans enjoyment of sports comes from admiration for people willing and able to do things that you, the viewer, could not do. Playing through injuries is part of that.

There’s a flip-side to this toughness though. There are some injuries that shouldn’t be played through: head injuries and heart injuries or conditions seem like obvious candidates to us but they are routinely ignored and even hidden by players. Bruce Arthur of the National Post wrote an article about this (as well as the strange need of some hockey fans to denigrate other sports as less tough) yesterday. He writes of Peverley, “Asking to go back in wasn’t so much about toughness as a form of insanity.” He also reminds the reader that two basketball players, Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis both died of heart problems on the court. When Peverley went down, many people thought of Jiri Fischer, a hockey player who was similarly brought back to life after a heart issue during a game, but there are other examples: Corey Stringer was a prominent football player who died of complications from heat stroke but there have been many others, Kris Letang, a player on the Pittsburgh Penguins, had a stroke this year resulting from a small hole in his heart. He is recovering now but managed to get to the training facility and fly with the team to an away game before the trainers found out and hospitalized him. The concussion story is well documented but it’s worth repeating that a big problem with preventing concussions, particularly the far more damaging second and third concussions in a short period, is that players at every level actively hide them from their coaches and trainers.

So, how tough is too tough in sports? I guess the answer is: when it comes to heads and hearts, don’t be tough; when it comes to anything else, be as tough as you want. That’s a pretty hard psychological change to ask athletes to make though: put the team before your knees, your legs, your arms, but not your head or your heart. It would be better to put structures in place in all sports that, without increasing the incentive of players to hide head and heart injuries, identified them and treated the players medically as people first and players a far distant second. I think it’s okay to enjoy a player whose heart tells him to get back into the game even after it’s just been shocked back to life as long as, as Barry Petchesky of Deadspin wrote, his coach, teammates, team doctors, and the league itself were all determined that it was “never, ever going to happen.”

Why do Sports Teams Report Injuries?

Dear Sports Fan,

One thing I’ve never understood about sports fans is why they seemed to be obsessed with injuries? Why do sports teams even report injuries?


This player is likely to get a Probable (neck) designation on next week’s injury report.

— — —

Dear Rhea,

Like many artifacts of sports culture, the reporting of injuries has historically been driven by gambling. Sports and gambling have a long and curious symbiotic relationship and even omnipresent elements of sports like the injury report often have gambling origins. An injury can affect a player’s performance and therefore the outcome of the game. Information about which players are injured therefore is helpful if you are predicting what will happen in a game, which is essentially what sports gambling is. In the major American professional sports leagues, teams are required to give information about their players’ injuries to the press. I always believed that this was evidence of the hypocrisy of the leagues. How can you claim to be anti-gambling when you require teams to publish information that is only really useful to sports gamblers? In fact, this is only partially true. The requirement of reporting injuries began in the late 1940s as a response to a plot to fix the 1946 championship game. Then NFL commissioner, Bert Bell, figured that publishing who might not play in a game or who was likely to play at less than 100% effectiveness was a good way to prevent gamblers or bookies from profiting from inside information.

Fantasy football is a form of sports gambling and is similarly, if not more, obsessed with injury reports. Fantasy owners pay very close attention to the injuries of their players. Because of how fantasy football works, owners get a chance each week to choose from among the players on their team those who they think are going to perform the best. Injuries to their players or to players who affect their players, like the quarterback who throws the ball to one of their wide-receivers or the linebacker whose job it is to hit their running back go a long way to helping decide whose stats to have count each weekend.

Injury reports have their own peculiar vocabulary. Here’s some of the common words and phrases and what they mean:

  • Probable — if a player is probable, he’s almost definitely playing. The team is either following the requirements and reporting that the player did not practice because they are suffering from some minor ailment or the team is trolling the system by obscuring real injuries with fake injuries to avoid giving their opponents the advantage of knowing who is actually hurt. This is a classic move of Bill Bellichick and the New England Patriots who once listed quarterback Tom Brady as probable for a few years despite him not missing a game.
  • Questionable — this designation is the only one that’s legitimate. A player listed as questionable might play or might not.
  • Doubtful — a player who is doubtful for a game is almost definitely not playing, the team just isn’t willing to admit it yet. According to this article about how bookmakers should use injury reports, only 3% of NFL football players listed as doubtful, play.
  • Out — nothing to see here, a player listed as out is definitely not playing in the upcoming game.
  • Upper/Lower Body Injury — Searching for a way to avoid exposing injured players from being targeted by their opponents, hockey teams are now only required to release whether an injury is an “upper body” or a “lower body” injury. This is silly in an era when players can watch replays of plays that happened five seconds ago or five months ago equally easily on team ipads.
  • (body part) — In sports that do give a little more specific information about where the injury is located than hockey does, you’ll often see this: Player Name, Probable (knee). This has led to the convention of announcers saying that a player is “out with a knee.” Sports columnist Bill Simmons has been poking fun at this convention for years.
  • (neck) — In the past few years there has been an increasing understanding of the seriousness of head injuries, particularly concussions. As a result, I believe that teams have started defaulting to the neck when reporting any head injury when they are not absolutely sure it is a concussion. Calling an injury a neck injury instead of a concussion allows the team more freedom in how and when the player returns to play. Crooked and dangerous but true.

One last thing to think about when it comes to injury reports is that they are evidence of how cooperative sports truly are. Sports has the reputation of being a refuge for the extremely competitive but the sharing of injury reports belies that to some extent. If the Jets were really trying to put the Dolphins out of business, they wouldn’t tell them about their injuries on their offensive line before playing them. Sports teams are at least as much collaborating with one another to make a communal profit within agreed-upon guidelines of behavior as they are competing to win at all costs. 

Hope this has answered your question,
Ezra Fischer