Go to work in a mine and you know the risks. You know that the mine could collapse and you could die. You know that your lungs can end up ruined and you could live out your life in and out of hospital and on oxygen. But you do it anyways because the money is more than what you could make working at McDonald's and you can support your family. You accept the risk because the payoff is better then the alternative.
When a kid falls off their bike, they get told to get up and brush it off. There may be some tears but they will most likely be fine. When an athlete gets hurt, they try to brush it off and get back out there. Except we are no longer talking about a scrapped knee, we could be talking about a badly injured shoulder, knee, or a head injury that may not show itself for days or even weeks. Should brushing it off be presented as an option to players or is the alternative, properly healing even during the season, a better option for athletes long-term?
Sports and concussions seem to be reaching this tipping point. As fans, we tend to know the very basics of the risks players face when getting a concussion: memory loss later in life, personality change and much, much more. Yet athletes happily return to play even when they do not feel 100% and teams seem confused when fans and media criticize their actions. The criticism is relevant, but the reasons for the actions is also really important because it is more than just about player safety; making the game safer means changing the very way teams and players think about toughness. Toughness does not mean playing through injury, toughness means understanding that your team needs you at your best and not at your worst.
The toughest injury on both team and athlete are concussions. Unlike shoulders and knees, seeing the injury is impossible. Symptoms are not always visible and getting a firm diagnosis is impossible. They are impossible to get properly diagnosed because we can only look at symptoms and deduce that it is probably a head injury caused by trauma that is causing the symptoms to appear. Until there is a test like a blood test t to diagnose concussions, there will be no perfect diagnosis. There is also the issue that one never fully recovers from a head injury. They just recover enough to return to play and that return to play could start the next day or the next year.
With all of this known, who is responsible for athletes deciding to continue to play if they know the risks? Concussion research is still in it's infancy and because of that it may have been impossible to tell athletes what the risks were in the 1990s because medical researchers have to abide by proper research protocols and even if they suspected that repeated head trauma resulted in long-term health issues including memory loss, they cannot release their findings until they have enough quantified data to support it.
Athletes think that they are invincible. They believe that nothing bad will happen to them. When they are older they realize how bad the affects of a career of getting beat up and going back out to the field of play broke them. When they are young the long-term thinking is not there because it will not happen to them. They are special and they are invincible. Yes, injuries happen all the time, but the really bad injuries will never happen to them. Athletes have to think that nothing bad will happen to them. And that may be their downfall.
Look at the concussion lawsuits in various professional leagues. All of them feature older players who would have lived the affects of their reckless ways and no matter what they say in retrospect, they agreed to it. Even if they knew the risks would 20 year old them have agreed to play on? Knowing what they know now, knowing their current quality of life, would they have said no? It is impossible to say, but the issue is not around the safety of sport but the culture in which that sport thrives. Even women's sport has a certain machoism that always drives an athlete to play on.
Is changing the environment too great? In some ways, yes. The extent of which players play through injuries would mean that the very way we are programmed from when we learn to ride a bike and fall off only to get back up, would have to change. Athletes would have to learn to slow down and realize that long-term they need to sit out and heal. Except sport only worries about the next tomorrow, there is no worry past that. Unless sports and athletes start worrying about something longer-term than the next tomorrow, real change will not happen.
There could be more of a thrust from the NHLPA or respective player unions to protect the players who are injured, but it is a little more complicated then that. If players start missing a lot of time to actually get healthy, it gives other players a chance to steal their spot in the league. Even with guaranteed contracts, this creates and issue because even good players become more replaceable and the number of untouchables shrink to be only the creme de la creme of players. Contracts become shorter and NHL players become more disposable then they already are. Acting to protect players long-term health would probably affect their short-term earning power.
Sport has nearly reached its reckoning point with injuries, specifically concussions, and who bears the responsibility for them. It is not really known how much was known about the effects of concussions in the 1990s because even if leagues knew that there could be potential long-term damage, unless the science is solid it is reckless to talk about it in certainties. The focus should be on educating current players of the risks of playing the sport they choose. It is then up to them to agree to play knowing that they will be broken when they are 50. But the answer also lies within us. There is nothing wrong with admitting defeat to pain and healing properly. If people are taught from a young age that it is okay to stay down, not get back on the bike, and not try again, we learn that it is okay to be more worried about being healthy then playing through injuries.