The NFL season ended this past Sunday with the Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and we all got to see Tom Brady hoist his seventh Lombardi trophy. However, it’s the other quarterback that I’m more concerned with for this article. Three weeks ago, in the Divisional Round game between Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs and the Cleveland Browns, Mahomes exited the game early with a concussion, and immediately entered the NFL’s concussion protocol. One week later, he was back to face the Buffalo Bills and secure the AFC Championship title defense, sending his team to the Super Bowl. Sure, it’s a compelling narrative, but more important, it’s a dangerous precedent.
Professional athletes have very large platforms; while that’s totally obvious, I think sometimes it’s important to contextualize just how large they are. For example, according to The New York Times, this Super Bowl was watched by 91.6 million people, which you may think is a lot until you realize it is the lowest viewers of a Super Bowl in the last 15 years. Still, with 91.6 million viewers, it’s safe to say that a good number of people pay attention to pro sports, specifically the game that the recently concussed Mahomes was playing in.
I recently went through training to get a high school coaching certification, and while watching Mahomes go down in the Browns game, this is all I could think about. Knowing how valuable he is to the Chiefs, I was certain he’d be back in a week, and it’s scary to think about all the young fans that will have seen this. Obviously I cannot fault Mahomes singularly; this is part of the culture of the NFL that prompts players to play through the pain on any injury, and the media coverage loves a good story of perseverance.
AJ Brown of the Tennessee Titans is another perfect example of someone that needs to be a role model, but will instead provide an example of a “strong athlete that toughed it out.” Sports Illustrated reports that Brown had surgery on both of his knees after this past season due to an injury he had for the entire season. When interviewed, Brown said “They told me I was done for the year in Week 2. I played all year. I ended up making the Pro Bowl. Didn’t know how I was going to do it. I did it.”
Whether it’s Mahomes, Brown or any of the hundreds of athletes I can name doing things like this, it is imperative that the highest levels of sports stop glorifying perseverance through injuries that should instead be tended to. Anyone who’s ever played a relatively competitive sport knows how much it can hurt to get sidelined for a big game or competition, but it needs to become normalized that it’s O.K. to sit out if you need to. We don’t need any high school athletes watching Mahomes bounce back quickly, trying the same thing, and then getting reinjured or worse just because they don’t have the resources or medical staff that the pros have.
In contrast, I’d like to offer up the story of Alex Smith as a good way to cover injuries in sports. Smith recently returned to playing in the NFL after suffering a debilitating compound fracture that literally almost killed him. He went through over 15 surgeries, and did everything right to get back to being fully healthy before being cleared to play. After miraculously making it back to the league, Smith was awarded the Comeback Player of the Year award, and a video was made congratulating him on his recovery. In a fitting move, the video was narrated by Joe Theisman, a former quarterback who is known for suffering a similar injury that instantly ended his career.
In conclusion, every diehard sports fan has been on all the roller coasters our favorite storylines bring us, and some of these can be incredibly inspiring, but let’s make it more common for the long, full recovery process to be showered in praise, and leave the half-healed, quickie recoveries in the past.