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The Road to Recovery: Sports culture pressures male athletes to put it all on the line to win

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Part two of a two-part series.

Jose Brambila
Sports Editor

“As I was warming up before the first batter came up to the plate, I felt a sharp pain in my left hip during my stride,” former pitcher Joey Stirling said. “I ignored it, kept pitching, but I could see and feel the effects. I knew the pain in my hip was throwing me off my game. I couldn’t let my team down and there was no way I was going to say I was hurt. So I carried on and my coach eventually took me out after allowing five runs. Why couldn’t I speak up about my injury, why did I feel like I had to be the savior?”

Stirling, 20, is a former major league baseball pitching prospect and was once predicted by some scouts to be drafted in the early rounds of the 2013 MLB draft. The discovery of a birth defect, however, ended his career prematurely in high school.

Men taught to hide pain

At a young age, boys are taught to be a man, which means not asking for help. Any goal worth achieving, one must do it by himself. Playing and fighting through pain is what society demands of their “men.”

Stirling said it is a common stereotype for men not to ask for help.

“It is engrained in every aspect of men’s lives not to seek help, we must figure it out on our own,” Stirling said.

As an elite athlete, he said he often felt pressured to keep silent about an injury, because he he had an obligation to his team to his gender to suck it up.

“It’s like that old story of a man and a woman traveling on the road. She wants him to ask for directions, but the husband says he’s got it,” Stirling said. “I think it is important to note that just because you seek help it doesn’t make you less of a man. A big part of playing sports is mental, that will to play, that drive to play and the want to pursue a victory and do everything humanly possible to win that one game.”

The media plays a huge part in reminding us of the pain and sacrifice athletes are willing to endure to obtain sports glory, according to the 2015 book “Psychosocial Strategies for Athletic Training” by Megan Granquist, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of La Verne, Jennifer Hamson-Utley, Laura J. Kenow, and Jennifer Siller-Ostrowski.

The book raises the question of whether we’ve paused to ask what price these athletes are willing to pay down the road in long-term health consequences, as a result of their moment of glory. Another question it asks is what message are we willing to send young children, who glue their eyes to the TV and watch their idols perform through pain and injury?

This behavior is normalized, encouraged, and often glorified by those involved in sports. Athletes are bombarded with locker room talks, movies, posters and more, all saying that there will be some pain involved in achieving athletic success, but some athletes will not let that or anything else stand in the way of victory, according to this book and other research.

Pushing bodies too far

Granquist, who is also director of the La Verne athletic training program, said that it all goes back to sports culture and how different demands are placed on men and women. There is also a difference between men and women when it comes to asking for help.

Stirling said male athletes are expected to have a totally devoted love for the game and prove this love by making sports the top priority in their lives.

“Athletes must eat, breathe, and sleep their sport,” Stirling said. “They have all this immense pressure to live up to the expectation of not only themselves, but their teammates and coaches, and show unwavering commitment.”

Arturo Davila, 20, is a Division I rugby player at Cal State Northridge.

As a male athlete, Davila said he has often felt the pressure to perform.

“Perform regardless of the circumstances and never make excuses, just get the job done,” Davila said. “We sometimes feel that if we can play through it, we are not actually hurt. The adrenaline and love of the sport often mask the pain and we don’t feel it, or in a sense (we) refuse to feel the pain until after the game is over.

“It becomes easy to play through an injury at that point because you love your teammates and you have loved the sport you’re playing for your entire life, so it becomes easy to play through pain for the people you love,” Davila said.

Paying the price

Stirling said society expects male athletes to not give in to pain or the physical and psychological pressures present in sport.

We expect athletes to face challenges with composure and accept the risks for failure and injury with courage.

A recent study, “Sociocultural Aspects of Injury and Injury Response” illustrates this using former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who had almost every part of his body listed on an NFL injury report at some point: hand, neck, toe, hamstring, head, elbow, back, side, chin, thigh, shoulder, forearm, thumb, hip, ankle and heel. Still, over 19 seasons, he never missed a start, playing in 297 consecutive games.

Favre even played with a broken thumb on his passing hand in the game right after his father died.

A great deal of controversy arose when Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler pulled out of the second half of the 2011 NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers because of a medial collateral ligament sprain in his knee. Unlike Favre, he decided the pain was too much and he was better off resting even if that meant missing a big game.

Favre, whom many consider one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, played through pain. His example could lead anyone who wants to achieve that level of success to believe they must also do whatever it takes to stay on the field, even if they risk further injuring themselves.

When a player chooses to take care of himself, media outlets and players question his toughness and commitment often based on little or no understanding of the severity of their injuries.

The study, “Sociocultural Aspects of Injury …,” finds the problem of media portrayal could also be the solution to getting younger generations of male athletes to be more willing to take care of their bodies with proper rest and rehabilitation.

For example, during the 2009 season, the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers experienced a rash of injuries to key players. The local newspaper, The Oregonian, published a feature article in the sports section highlighting the lessons learned by the team and head athletic trainer about exercising caution and patience when rehabilitating from injury.

The Oregonian article discussed how previous decisions to quickly return players to action resulted in their injuries healing more slowly overall. The article highlighted this more conservative approach, which in turn resulted in a positive impact on the attitudes of Portland-area athletes, who were less willing or likely to play through pain.

This NBA season, star players on playoff-bound teams would take time off during the regular season to ensure the when the playoffs started they would be well rested and healthy, which is ultimately the barometer of success for a NBA player.

Davila said athletes should do what feels right for them and their bodies, because no one else knows what their bodies are feeling.

Professional athletes have a short window of playing at a high level, they should be doing everything they can to prolong that window, Davila said.

“Lebron James, who was one of the players that rested during regular season games, probably feels like he’s injury prone,” Davila said.

“He just wants to be ready for when the playoffs come around so he can perform at the highest level for his teammates in Cleveland and the fans.”

“It’s ironic that athletes get criticized for taking time off to prevent injuries, but they are adored if they do something stupid and play through one.”

Medical staffs should have final say

“From personal experience athletes are never going to ask to be subbed out during a game if they feel like they can play through an injury,” Davila said. “The medical staff has to have final say if a player is healthy enough to play because some coaches do not have your best interest at heart, they have outside pressure to deliver a result, so their judgement can be clouded.”

At Cal State Northridge, the coaching staff works closely with the medical staff to monitor player injuries.

“Our coaches and medical staff at CSUN say if you look dizzy on the field they will immediately take you off and not let you play the rest of the game,” Davila said.

“They’re really alert when it comes to concussions and doing their part to prevent them. If during a game you get injured they have to see you improving every 24 hours during the week, too even be considered for the next week’s game. If we attempt to hide an injury we are penalized by our coaching staff from playing in the next game.”

“As a result of the physicality in rugby it’s great that our coaching staff along with the medical staff are so proactive especially when it comes to concussions,” Davila said.

The medical staff at Cal State Northridge have a policy that if you suffer from five concussions you can no longer play.

He says it’s great that they look out for their athletes at CSUN, because if it were up to the athletes they would never quit playing.

“Teams need to realize looking out for your player means more than just paying them,” Stirling said.

The Portland Trailblazers and Cal State Northridge athletics have taken a more conservative approach when dealing with injuries. They are realizing that a more patient approach can pay off in the long run.

Sports teams are notorious for copying each others approaches; if an innovative approach like this starts to give these teams success on the court, it will not be long before this practice becomes mainstream.

For Stirling and Davila the change cannot come soon enough.

Jose Brambila can be reached at jose.brambila@laverne.edu.

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