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Changing the narrative about sports injuries and ‘toughness’

When athletes are compared to gladiators, there’s little daylight for the frailties of the human body.

Medical staff tend to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa after an injury during the second quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium on Sept. 29.Andy Lyons/Photographer: Andy Lyons/Getty I

During a Little League World Series game in August, a hitter was accidentally beaned by the opposing pitcher. His helmet and cap flew off as he crumpled to the ground, his hands pressed to his head. After several anxious minutes, the hitter got to his feet and was escorted to first base. He then walked to the mound to hug and console the pitcher who was visibly upset.

Deservedly, video of that moment went viral as a poignant demonstration of compassion and sportsmanship. But what received no attention was an announcer’s comment during a replay of the initial incident: “Wow, that is a tough kid right there.”


In reality, that “tough kid” probably should have been taken out as a precaution to evaluate whether, after being hit in the head with a fastball, he could have been more seriously injured than he appeared. But the announcer’s unchallenged remark reinforced the idea that toughness in sports is defined by quickly brushing off injury and putting the game before a player’s well-being.

Of course that same mentality thrives in professional sports. Injured players who “shake it off” and stay in the game are praised as tough. Those who miss too much time on the field or court are accused of laziness or dogging it.

But after Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa returned to a game last month after what appeared to be a concussion and, four days later, left the field on a stretcher after another devastating hit, the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to changes in the league’s concussion protocol. What also needs to change is the toxic narrative around a culture that praises those who risk career-ending or life-altering injuries by suiting up when they should be sitting down.

In our sport-obsessed society, we love tales about athletes who soldier through the pain. It’s Curt Schilling on the mound with his “bloody” sock for the Boston Red Sox during the 2004 American League Championship. It’s New York Knicks captain Willis Reed limping onto the court at Madison Square Garden in 1970 and inspiring his team’s championship-winning victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.


And it’s the story of Ronnie Lott who in 1985 broke his pinky finger during a game. Surgery would have taken the San Francisco 49ers safety out of action for weeks. Instead, he chose to have the tip of that finger amputated so he could continue playing. Lott was hailed as the ultimate gridiron hero — but regretted his decision.

“If I ever become a coach, I hope I never lose sight of the fact that players are people,” Lott said. “They feel. They have emotions.” He said he wished someone had looked out for him.

But that’s rarely how sports work. Massive contracts bring expectations that players will be ready to leave it all on the field or court. Billions must be made. Games must be won. And to keep that myth of invincibility alive, teams make decisions based on everything except what’s best for the player. That’s why the Dolphins, who falsely claimed Tagovailoa had a back injury, sent him back into the game on Sept. 25 even though he continued to stumble after a hard hit. Then came the next game which landed him on his back, his fingers twisted and seized up.


Five years ago, Gisele Bündchen, the Brazilian supermodel and — at least for now — Tom Brady’s wife, spoke about what she said were the quarterback’s frequent concussions with the New England Patriots. “He has concussions pretty much every … I mean, we don’t talk about it. He does have concussions,” she said during a CBS interview. “I don’t really think it’s a healthy thing for a body to go through that kind of aggression all the time. That could not be healthy for you.”

The NFL and NFLPA disputed Bündchen’s comments and claimed there was no evidence Brady had suffered a concussion. That hasn’t changed during Brady’s current tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Bündchen’s remarks came almost exactly five years after Junior Seau, the linebacker who spent most of his storied career with the San Diego Chargers but played several seasons with the Patriots, died by suicide. Over 20 years, Seau played with a devil-may-care ferocity that made him beloved to fans. Yet he was never diagnosed with a concussion. Post-mortem he was found to have CTE, the degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repetitive head trauma.

Sports are designed to be competitive, but that competition should not be between an athlete and false perceptions of weakness. Toughness isn’t measured by how much physical punishment someone can endure. Long after the cheering ends, former players deal with the physical ramifications of the impossible price they’re expected to pay just to play a game they love.


Considered one of the NFL’s rising stars, Tagovailoa has yet to return to the field and it’s unclear when he’ll be able to do so. No game is worth his, or any players’, long-term health. But whether in Little League or the pros, when athletes are judged for their toughness and compared to gladiators and warriors, there’s too little daylight for the frailties of the human body.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.