The Achilles' Heel: Sports Injuries and Team Doctors

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The Achilles' Heel: Sports Injuries and Team Doctors
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What do NFL players, female gymnasts, and contestants on So You Think You Can Dance have in common?

Injuries.

I’ve been watching these athletes tackle, twirl, and tumble on my television for the past several months as NFL preseason has kicked off, Lauren Froderman was crowned the season 7 winner of So You Think You Can Dance, and Rebecca Bross won the US National Gymnastics Championships.

But I’ve also been hearing about those who had to sit out due to concussions, Achilles ruptures, and broken bones. The fallen include So You Think You Can Dance front-runner Alex Wong, with an Achilles rupture (painfully caught on tape during a dress rehearsal), and reigning US and World all-around gymnastics champion Bridget Sloan, with an injured pectoral muscle.

Who is supposed to be protecting these talented bodies from such serious injuries?

You would think that all of these competitors are advised by top-notch, impartial medical professionals who can help protect them. You would be both right and wrong. Many are advised by medical professionals who have been officially designated as a treating physician, but not all athletes have such regular access.

Did you know that pro wrestlers in the WWE do not have ringside doctors, as many state athletic commissions require? Why not? In the 1980s, the WWE (then known as the WWF) said that their matches were a form of entertainment and not true athletic events, which allowed them to sidestep many regulations.

Similarly, television dance shows, like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars, which have been beset by injuries the past two years, aren’t classified as athletic events (despite Gatorade recently declaring dance to be a sport).

Whether athletes should even trust the advice and recommendations of team physicians when they are provided is debatable. A worrying trend in professional sports is hospitals and doctors paying for the right to be named the official medical provider.

For example, the Boston Celtics are reportedly in a 12-year business deal with New England Baptist Hospital, which is recognized as “the official team hospital.”

Instead of finding the best health care providers for their athletes, teams may go with those who can pay the highest price. This essentially amounts to an advertising investment for hospitals and doctors. If they treat Tom Brady or LeBron James, they must be the best, right? Many assume so, so the hospitals get more patients.

More traditional situations, in which doctors are employed and paid by the team, are certainly not unproblematic. Conflicts of interest arise when the best interests of the team and the athletes are not the same: Does the doctor side with the people who write the paychecks, or with their athlete-patients?

Given this frequent conflict, it is significant that the NFL now mandates that an “impartial” doctor must clear athletes before they can return to the field after a diagnosed concussion.

In a bold move, the NFL announced in late July that players would be formally warned about the long-term cognitive side effects of repeated concussions, like dementia and depression, via a poster in all locker rooms.

A few weeks ago Ryan Grant, a running back for the Green Bay Packers, got a concussion in a preseason game. Under new league rules, he can’t return to play until he has been cleared by an independent doctor.

While Grant wonders if he should have acted fine in front of doctors so he would still be playing, it’s clear that for safety reasons, this is a step in the right direction, and hopefully it will spread to other sports.

The hope is that these best practices will also trickle down to collegiate, high school, and youth sports. Until that happens injuries, and the way they are treated, remain an Achilles' heel for athletes and the industry that surrounds them.

Hilary Levey is a sociologist and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. She studies culture, competition, and youth sports injuries.

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