Big, sad news out of the first round of the NBA Playoffs: The Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose has torn his ACL and will miss the rest of the playoffs. That happened in the last two minutes of the game, when the Bulls' victory was all but assured. Thus, the Bulls are already facing questions about whether or not Rose really should have been in the game at all at that point. That's good; questions are always good. Welcomed, even. But what's interesting to me is the fact that very few people are asking if Rose himself wanted to be in the game at that point.
In the very important discussion of injury prevention, it's easy to forget that athletes have agency, they're not just at the mercy of uncaring leagues and ignorant coaches. You can probably find examples of forgetting that on this very blog. In fact, you probably already have, because you're just so clever. But, it's nonetheless true; in a sense, athletes are the final veto point over their own health and playing time.
Of course, we probably already know how athletes in general- and Rose in particular- make these decisions. Absent evidence to the contrary, I will always assume that an athlete wants to play. Absent evidence to the contrary, I will always assume that superstar athletes who base their prowess on an aggressive offense will not just always want to play, but always be the deciding factor in the game. So, yeah, Rose wanted in. My guess is, unless Rose knew for a fact that playing in those final minutes would end his career early, he'd want to play. And even if he did know that, he'd need to think about it.
This, of course, makes preventing career-ending injuries a lot harder. But I'm not sure what we can do about it. I'm not sure what we even want to do about it. We all love it when athletes play through pain. We love it when they throw caution to the wind and leave it all on the floor and a couple other cliches, too. It's just in the DNA of sports culture; athletes play through pain, and we the fans feel inspired.
Which is not to say that we should give up on the issue; in fact, if we can't expect athletes to choose not to play through injuries- if, indeed, we want them to play through injuries- that's actually a pretty good reason for beefing up the rest of the system. Leagues need to have better rules for monitoring and disciplining. Coaches need to be more sensitive to injuries. Medical staff needs to be better trained. And yes, players need to be better informed about their injuries, if only so when they inevitably elect to play through them, it's at least an informed decision.
If athletes didn't always want to play, they'd be something else. That's an important limitation to recognize as we talk about preventing injuries. But not because it informs what we can't do about the issue; it's important because it helps define what we can- and should- do.