Mike Sielski: Let the Kevin Durant incident be a lesson: Injuries aren't character flawsThe Philadelphia Inquirer — By Mike Sielski The Philadelphia Inquirer
June 11-- Kevin Durant had been cleared to play. It made what happened Monday night, early in the Golden State Warriors' 106-105 victory in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, all the more excruciating to watch. It made the sight of Durant planting his right foot and pulling up lame and limping with an injury to his Achilles tendon-after he'd missed a month because of a calf injury-all the more sickening.
And it is the paradox inherent in pro sports, in the never-ending debates and discussions about athletes and injuries: When should they play if they're hurt? Why do they play if they're hurt? Is it smart to play if they're hurt?
Durant had been cleared to play. The Warriors' team doctors told him he could start in Game 5, with his team down three games to one to the Toronto Raptors, with his team's season on the line. That's why Bob Myers, the Warriors' president and general manager, ended up wiping tears from his eyes and taking the blame early Tuesday morning for the injury that changed everything about Durant's career and the NBA's immediate future and that should change everything about the way fans and media and even franchises and athletes themselves view and handle such delicate situations.
The paradox is evident to anyone who cares to see it: A team's interests and an athlete's interests don't always align. Your doctor works for you. A team doctor doesn't work for the athlete, and in the power structure over public perception, the team usually has the advantage.
It's only when the athlete's physical pain and limitations are obvious-think of Donovan McNabb playing on a broken ankle in 2002, or Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley, dazed by a blow to the head, staggering off the field and back on again in 2010-that the balance shifts in the athlete's favor, toward health and safety. Otherwise, the team holds all the cards. The athlete will likely do all he can to play, and the team is likely happy to let him try, and once that train starts heading down the tracks, no one bothers to act as the railway brakeman.
It's when that general scenario doesn't play out, when one of the parties deviates from it, that people tend to lose their ever-loving minds, that logic and caution get tossed away like trash. A few feet away from where Durant went down, for instance, stood Kawhi Leonard. It was a fitting juxtaposition. Last year, Leonard had his integrity questioned because he suited up for just nine games and seemed in no hurry to return from a quad injury, even though the San Antonio Spurs' doctors had cleared him, even though everyone knows that the Spurs would never, ever fall prey to the same pressure that every pro franchise feels to get its best player back as soon as possible. Oh, no, sir.
Somewhere along the way, a lot of people decided that injuries were character flaws. We've seen it here: with Ryan Howard after his 2011 Achilles tear, with Joel Embiid and his feet and his back and the illness that weakened him against the Raptors in these playoffs, with Sam Bradford and his repeated comebacks from torn knee ligaments, with Carson Wentz earning no quarter last season for returning early from his knee injury and playing through a stress fracture in his back.
We mock the term load management, and we insist that today's athletes aren't nearly as tough and durable and committed as yesteryear's (you know, back when few of them, if any, kept up their training during the offseason), and it's only when a player challenges those stereotypes and suffers for it, as Durant did, that we wonder whether we're asking too much for our entertainment.
The factors that led to these demands-the demands that Myers acknowledged in his remarks and that Durant surely felt-aren't difficult to pinpoint. There is the tribalism that has always been an aspect of sports and that, in many ways, has become more intensified now, that infects our politics and our culture and our interpersonal interactions. This guy plays for my team, for my city, for me, and dammit, why isn't he doing everything possible to get his a_ out there? You saw the flip side of that attitude in the unconscionable, derisive cheering that rained from the Scotiabank Arena bleachers and rafters after Durant grabbed his leg and crumpled to the floor. That guy doesn't play for my team. He's the enemy. He's a bad person. His misery makes me feel good. Screw him.
There are the athletes' multimillion-dollar salaries, climbing annually, reaching numbers that are incomprehensible, ticket prices getting higher as the business gets bigger and bigger, and there is the legalization and accessibility of betting and the rise of fantasy sports. There is more money at stake than ever before, and there are reams of deep-dive data that encourage us to view athletes not as flesh-and-blood human beings but as algorithms and trend lines that may or may not reach their carefully calculated projections-and that encourage us to resent them when they don't. And there is the mixture of nostalgia and idealism-the reverence for our heroes from the past, when things were simpler and salaries were lower and a guy pitched through arm trouble or refused to leave the field after his bell was rung because that's just what guys did back then-that adds to the resentment.
It's easy and natural to get swept away by any or all of those currents, and while Durant was flushing all three of his 3-point shots and scoring 11 points in just 12 minutes, until he fell to the floor, the pull of Game 5's drama, of what he was doing, was just as powerful. It was so damn fun to watch. Why? Because everyone understood the truth: Kevin Durant had been cleared to play, but he wasn't really at 100 percent. Everyone had known better. Everyone should have.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mike Sielski is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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