Whose body is it any way?

sports cartoon

Recently, I was talking sports with some folks and the conversation turned to how the media and fans sometimes criticize, sometimes incessantly hard, star players who have nagging injuries that stop them from being the stars everyone expects them to be, or, are “obviously” not rehabbing efficiently from injury because they don’t return to the field, or court, of play fast enough for their tastes. Funny, I said, I didn’t know they owned these players. They got papers on these guys? And, besides, I thought Abe freed the slaves in 1863 (of course, it took Congress two more years before they made it legal by passing the Thirteenth Amendment).  So, in what world is anyone telling any athlete he owes it to his team to get back; to suck it up because the team needs you to be playing and the athlete needs to start earning his paycheck?

Last October, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith says, “Opening night, Kobe Bryant is going to miss it because my foot is sprained? Are you crazy?” 

It is no longer as it was in the far past when players often were simply given injections, or, had their injuries taped tightly, to stave off their hurts and pains and then thrust back into competitive action because they owed it to their team. Mainly, because sports now understand that it is stupid to thrust a hurt player back into competition for a possible immediate victory only to lose that player for the rest of the season due to aggravating an existing physical disability, and, injury cartoonmaybe with the added thinking that players are now thought of more humanely as people instead of as tools or property for an owner to derive profits. Still, there are remnants of that attitude among certain segments of the fans, the media, and, most certainly from the owners who pay certain players big money, who believe these stars should be willing to sacrifice some physical pain to be out pushing to do whatever is necessary to win whatever championships is associated their particular sport.

On June 21, 2013, Andy Schmidt (RantSports.com) wrote “It is very obvious that Carmelo Anthony is a needed for New York Knicks for them to have success. There have been reports in recent days that the team hasn’t decided yet on whether or not Anthony is going to need surgery to repair his torn left labrum.

I don’t think there is even a question: they should tell Anthony to have the surgery or else.

He is getting paid a huge amount of money and is under contract. Anthony would be out for four months after the surgery if it is done, but don’t the Knicks want their superstar healthy going into next season? The Knicks have the capability of getting to a championship in short order, but they aren’t going to see that happen if Anthony isn’t 100 percent.

This is a very simple decision in my opinion. New York tells Anthony to get the surgery done and he has four months until the regular season begins again. That should be plenty of time for any recovery and rehab to be finished. The clock is ticking on this and there shouldn’t be any more time wasted on making this decision.”

Anthony played through the NBA playoffs last year with a partially torn labrum aka shoulder. And a torn labrum can be a very slow healer and sometimes does require surgery to fix the problem. But, Anthony made a decision to not have a surgical procedure. He told the New York Daily News (NYDN), “I took one MRI a couple months ago and it was healing back in place… So that was the decision, should I get surgery or should I not? I’m not really a big fan of surgical procedures. At the end of the day it was my body, and if I felt as though I needed to go get surgery I was going to get surgery. But at that point I was hoping up until that first MRI that I didn’t need surgery and the Almighty man was with me.”

On March 30, 1986 Keith Groller, wrote in the Lehigh Valley (PA) newspaper “The Morning Call” that “It’s hard to take Andrew Toney’s side in his dispute with Philadelphia 76er owner Harold Katz. It’s hard to defend anyone who earns more money in one season of basketball than the average guy earns at his job in two decades. Yet, it’s even harder not to take the side of someone who is being treated like dirt by a flamboyant owner who seems to mistreat more and more people each year in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.”   

Andrew Toney
Andrew Toney

Andrew Toney, was a pretty darn good shooting guard with the Philadelphia 76ers’ teams of the 1980s. However, in the 1984-85 season, he began to have pain in his feet and missed some games. The 76ers’ doctors said there was no apparent reason for Toney’s pain and soon a problem developed when the team owner said Toney was not hurt and could play and therefore should be playing. Toney said he could not play due to the pain he felt in his feet. At this point a highly publicized battle royal began between the owner, Harold Katz, and Toney. Katz eventually told Toney he needed to be tested for drugs and Toney complied. The test came back negative.

Radio sports show folks began making the Toney situation a focal point on their shows sand soon the most talked about topic was whether Toney was healthy and could play or was malingering instead of actually being hurt. The majority opinion was not favorable to Toney. Then finally in November of the following season doctors discovered small stress fractures in each of Toney’s feet. And the folks who had criticized Toney as a malingerer were left red-faced and looking like the jackasses that they were.

Groller wrote in his 1986 article that “Katz…ordered Toney back into a Philadelphia 76er uniform … even though Toney insist(ed) he is not fit to play. Katz demanded that Toney return to action or be suspended.” Additionally he reported that “(Katz’) handling of Toney has stirred up everyone close to the team. He’s been called heartless, unbusinesslike, insensitive, and uncaringly arrogant by some in the press. His players have called the incident sad and stupid…”

At the time, Julius Erving, not one to draw undue attention to himself with words, said, “That’s not the way I do my business…”

Reports also said that Toney’s teammates saw the situation as being that since Katz’ signed Toney to a guaranteed seven-year contract worth millions, he could care less what physical, or psychological, pain Toney suffered as long as he bled his money’s worth from him.

Groller ultimately wrote, “Katz evidently feels that the pain… is non-existent (and Toney) must be faking it. Well, if Toney is faking it, then he certainly gave an Oscar-winning act Friday night against the Bucks… He had a crowd of 13,000-plus convinced that he wasn’t a very healthy guy. Throughout his 13 minutes on the court, he moved at about half-speed, as if the Spectrum floor consisted of egg shells. He took a couple of outside shots, but missed them all. He struggled to get back on defense and wearily looked to get the ball to the open man on offense… Toney’s play Friday night was sadly ineffective.”

Groller added, “It led you to believe that maybe, just maybe, he has been telling the truth. Just maybe, he really can’t play at a competitive level in the NBA this year”, and, “Katz and Sixer management will have none of it. They didn’t believe Toney last year when he said he was not himself. They made him play through the pain. They made him struggle. When he complained, they looked the other way… Then one day last November, Toney got a different medical opinion from the one the Sixer team doctors were giving him. Lo and behold, X-rays showed that Toney’s pain was not just in his head. He had stress fractures in both ankles which would require surgery. Toney had surgery, but none of the Sixers’ misgivings were corrected. No apologies were offered. Instead of compassion, Katz has shown nothing but contempt for Toney. The Sixers almost permanently ruined Toney’s career and yet there was Katz saying the other day, ‘I decided I wasn’t going to coddle him anymore.’” 

After the Bulls’ Wednesday (10/23) night preseason win over the Thunder ,Derrick Rose was asked what advice he might give Russell Westbrook as he makes his way back from knee surgery and he said, “Take his time… He’s the only one that knows his body. There’s no need to force anything. And attack every day of rehab like it’s your last day. Get everything you [can] get out of it every day.”

Rose, who is just returning to action after missing close to a year and a half after ACL surgery Rose took a lot of criticism for his decision not to come back and play for the Bulls last season despite being cleared by team doctors for several months.

During the 2012-2013 NBA season as he recovered from ACL surgery Derrick Rose made a decision to rehab until he was convinced that he was ready, both physically and mentally, to play in the NBA on the level that he had played before he was injured. Eventually some media people, as well as some fans on internet threads, said Rose had been “cleared to play” and since he was cleared and not playing that suggested he needed to “man up” and stop being dilettante about getting back on the court.

bullsdeepholeinkMichael Wilbon (ESPNChoicago.com) wrote (4/25/13), “… somebody in the front office should have announced the first day of training camp (that Rose might not play at all during the season); instead Rose is just out there… twisting in the wind from a public relations standpoint. This is a perception problem more than anything else and the people at the top, starting with Jerry Reinsdorf, should have shut off the conversation before the season began. Hell, that’s why Gar Forman  (Bulls’ GM)… put together a bridge roster with a bunch of one-year contracts, BECAUSE THEY KNEW IT WAS VERY POSSIBLE ROSE WOULDN’T PLAY THIS SEASON!… But because this false-hope speculation (that Rose would play in 2012-2013) became rampant, the Bulls now have a 24-year-old star who was easily the most beloved player in Chicago sports, since Michael Jordan, under attack, first nationally and now, unbelievably, locally.

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose

Wilbon then points out players such as Penny Hardaway, Gilbert Arenas, Tim Hardaway and Bernard King had serious knee injuries that either ruined, or adversely changed, their careers and that Rose “… seems intent on not joining that group, on coming back much closer to the MVP he was before ripping up his knee. But the chorus of critics, which grows larger and louder by the day it seems, is equally intent on deriding him as being soft for doing so, even in Chicago where impatience is plain goofy. Wouldn’t we rather have Rose back as close to his old form as possible than to just have him back? To do that, ‘cleared to play’ can’t be the bar he’s trying to clear. And even if “cleared to play” was a magical sentence that healed all scars and took away all pain, how come all those NFL players, who were at the time “cleared to play,” are suing the NFL over medical and safety issues?”

Wilbon makes the point that Gilbert Arenas (all-NBA scoring point guard in 2005, 2006 and 2007) was Rose, just six years earlier, before blowing out his knee. And that as Arenas recovered from that injury he was determined to come back in less than a year. As he diligently rehabbed, everybody expressed how they were impressed with his fortitude, his courage… his manhood. And, Arenas now plays in China… He’s 31 and for all extents and purposes won’t ever return to the NBA.

Penny Hardaway… first-team all-NBA in his second season, first-team all-NBA in his third season and some said he was the best lead guard in the NBA… just like Rose. His knee went out on him during season five and when he came back he started having constant nagging injuries… a foot, a knee… then surgery. Penny was no longer the Penny Hardaway and Wilbon says, “You think Penny Hardaway, who had championships in him before that first injury, wouldn’t love an extra two or three months and maybe a training camp if he had it to do all over again?”

Tim Hardaway… Reached 5,000 points and 2,500 assists faster than anybody except for the Big O, Oscar Robertson. Hardaway invented the modern crossover and then had his knee give out and missed the 1993-94 season. By 1997, he was again one of the best guards in the NBA, but between when he got injured and up until 1997 he was not the Tim Hardaway he had previously been. Wilbon points out that Hardaway said “My biggest thing was getting my head and knee on the same page, so I could do the same things I did before the injury, doing the crossover, exploding to the basket, not being afraid to lay the ball up over a big guy… I had to get to the points where I didn’t fear leaping off my [the injured] leg … That was the biggest challenge I had to overcome … It’s something you just have to go out and do.”

Stephen Drew breaks ankle
Stephen Drew breaks ankle

“I’m going to be real direct about Stephen (Drew)… I believe Stephen should have been out there playing before now. Frankly, I for one am disappointed. I’m going to be real candid and say I think Stephen and his representatives are more focused on where Stephen’s going to be a year from now than going out and supporting the team that’s paying his salary.” … Arizona D-backs managing general partner Ken Kendrick.

On July 20, 2011, Drew slid into home plate, injured his right ankle and wound up missing the rest of the season. The diagnosis was a fracture along with torn ligaments and the estimated recovery timetable was for Drew to back on the field in May of the 2012 season. He didn’t meet that timetable. On June 4, 2012, Kendrick in a telephone interview with Brad Cesmat, of Pros2preps.com, made the above referenced quote. Drew did not finally play baseball as a D-Back until June 27…  more than eleven months since he incurred his injury and went through his rehab. Drew was traded to the Oakland Athletics who made the decision to not pick up his option. He is presently the starting shortstop in the World Series for the Boston Red Sox.

Coincidentally, Drew wasn’t the only player Kendrick took to task that day. He also questioned Justin Upton’s ability to recover from “nagging injuries” and be the consistent player he needs to be. On January 24, 2013 The D’Backs and the Atlanta Braves made a trade that was essentially Upton for Martin Prado.

Why can’t Rob Gronkowski just be a gladiator? Back in the golden days of football, players were men and would still play even without any limbs. Who cares if Gronkowski’s risking a possible career-ending injury? His team needs him.

That’s about the general consensus of the critics who argue that the star tight end should already have returned by now. It’s not even coming from fans anymore, either. ESPN’s Ed Werder reported that there are people inside the New

Rob Gronkowski injured
Rob Gronkowski injured

England Patriots organization wondering why he hasn’t gotten back on the field: “Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s continued absence from the New England Patriots’ lineup has escalated tension among teammates who have begun questioning him about why he’s not playing and left some wondering if he intends to play at all this season, according to multiple sources.(One sources aid) ‘”There’s curiosity and resentment, and he’s creating it by going out and kicking ass during the week and then he doesn’t show up on game day and help the team win.”

There really shouldn’t be any curiosity at this point. The fact is that Gronkowski hasn’t actually gotten medical clearance to play yet, at least as of Saturday, via ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Bleacher Report’s Joseph Zucker wrote those words on October 13, 2013.

Zucker also made the point that if the Patriots’ medical team is not letting Gronkowski play then all the hullabaloo is for naught because the reality is that no team is going to go against any doctor’s order. But then Zucker sardonically said, “(But) let’s throw him back on the field with an existing injury. That won’t end badly, right? It’s not like the Patriots have been down this road before. Except that they have. With Gronkowski.”

Zucker cites WEEI.com’s Mike Petraglia who reported that “WEEI.com has learned from multiple industry sources that the arm, injured initially on Nov. 18, 2012, against the Colts, might have healed properly on its own with no surgery necessary. But the team and Gronkowski, perhaps looking to hasten his return to the field, decided upon surgery to use an implement in hopes he would be ready for the playoffs. Gronkowski returned in the 2012 season finale and caught a touchdown pass, but he re-injured the arm two weeks later in a win over the Texans and was unavailable against the Ravens in the AFC championship.”

The point being Gronkowski, the Patriots doctors and ipso facto the Patriots hierarchy has seen what happens when he comes back too soon from an injury, and he, as well as everyone else that really matters, don’t want to travel down that road one more time.

“People have asked me how many concussions I’ve had and I say, ‘I don’t remember.’” … Brett Favre

Favre wonders about concussions
Favre wonders about concussions

In the Sunday (10/27) issue of the New York Daily News Columnist Gary Myers wrote, “Brett Favre had no regard for his body in his 20 years in the NFL. He had a linebacker mentality, the arm of a gunslinger and the enthusiasm of a kid playing just for fun in the schoolyard. He’s just 44 years old and a grandfather and retired after the 2010 season after several false starts. In the same week the Rams reached out to Favre’s agent to see if he was interested in stepping in for Sam Bradford, who tore his ACL last weekend, he revealed he’s had some memory loss. If there is a connection between Favre’s memory loss and the concussions he suffered in his career, it takes this entire issue to another level with such a high-profile face just months after the NFL settled the concussion lawsuit brought by thousands of former players for $765 million.

“Hall of Famers and Super Bowl champs Troy Aikman and Steve Young each had his career cut short by concussions, but neither has said it has caused post-career problems. But now Favre, who turned down the chance to return with St. Louis, is expressing concern about his health.”

Favre told WSPZ radio (Washington), “I got a pretty good memory, and I have a tendency like we all do to say, ‘Where are my glasses?’ and they’re on your head. This was pretty shocking to me that I couldn’t remember my daughter playing youth soccer, just one summer, I think. I remember her playing basketball, I remember her playing volleyball, so I kind of think maybe she only played a game or two. I think she played eight. So that’s a little bit scary to me. So for the first time in 44 years, that kind of put a little fear in me.”

Myers made two very salient points in his piece on Favre: (1) “Favre suffered a concussion in the third quarter of a 2004 game against the Giants. He sat out two plays, came back on the field waving backup Doug Pederson off without getting medical clearance from the Packers doctors and immediately threw a 28-yard touchdown to Javon Walker on a fourth-and-5. Doctors then prohibited him from going back in the game. After the game, Giants quarterback Kurt Warner spoke to Favre on the field. (Warner said) ‘I talked to him just for a minute to see how he was feeling. He didn’t remember the touchdown play. Back then, it just added to the legend of the gunslinger. Now, it seems pretty stupid.”

(2) “He played the week after the Giants game. Of course he did so because that’s what he did. His record streak of 297 starts finally came to an end against the Giants late in the 2010 season. He finished his career getting sacked 525 times. Now he can’t remember his daughter playing soccer. Scary.”

Indeed, it is scary.

What is it going to take before the entire matter of players taking all the time they need before they get back to playing with their teams is no longer an issue? Or, does somebody gotta get killed before we take these injuries serious?

This brings me to James Rodney Richard aka J. R. Richard.

J. R. Richard
J. R. Richard

From 1976 to 1980, Richard was becoming a premier pitcher in MLB.  Twice he led the National League in strikeouts, 303 in 1978 and 313 in 1979. His 313 strikeouts in 1979 remains a Houston Astros’ franchise record. Once, he was the ERA leader, 2.71 in 1979. He won at least 18 games four years in a row (1976-1979), topping out with 20 in 1976.

In 1980, Nolan Ryan joined the Astros as a free agent. The two biggest strikeout pitchers (Ryan was an AL leader seven times) in the game were about to become the next Koufax and Drysdale.

Richard started the year off 10-4 with a 1.96 ERA and 115 strikeouts. At one point, Richard threw three straight complete-game shutouts. He was selected to be the National League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game on July 8, but he pitched just two innings due to shoulder and back pain. When the season resumed after the all-star game, Richard said his arm felt “dead” and he still complained about pain in his arm and shoulder. Various people interpreted his complaints as whining or malingering and said this was just Richard being his old moody self. Others people said that Richard couldn’t handle the pressure of being a star or was jealous of Ryan because Ryan was making $4.5 million a year while he was under contract for $195,000.

On July 14, against the Braves, Richard was pitching well and even struck out the side in the second inning, but then had trouble seeing the catcher’s signs and serious discomfort was developing in his arm. Then in the fourth inning, he said his arm was dead and his fingers had gone so numb he couldn’t hold the ball.  He left the game. Consequently, the Astros placed Richard on the 21-day DL. But, the fact was that game on July 14 was the last game he would ever pitch in the majors.

On July 23, he checked into Methodist Hospital (Houston) for a series of physical and psychological tests to determine the cause of his arm problems. An angiogram revealed an obstruction in the distal subclavian and axillary arteries of his right arm. Blood pressure in the arm was virtually absent due to the obstruction.  Then incredibly, on July 25, the arteries in his neck were studied by doctors who then reached the conclusion that all was now normal and no surgery would be necessary.

On July 30, Richard went to see a chiropractor who rotated his neck to fix the flow of blood in his upper torso region. Later that day as Richard was participating in pregame exercises he suffered a major stroke and collapsed in the outfield. He was rushed to emergency where a massive blockage in his right carotid artery was discovered and he was in surgery that evening.

An examination by a neurologist showed that Richard was still experiencing weakness in his arms and the left side of his face. A CAT scan was performed of his brain and the results showed that Richard had experienced three separate strokes from the obstructions in his arterial system. AND, the arteries in his right arm were still obstructed.

Later examinations showed that Richard was suffering from extensive arterial thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). TOS is a term used to describe a group of disorders that occur when there is compression, injury, or irritation of the nerves and/or blood vessels (arteries and veins) in the lower neck and upper chest area. Thoracic outlet syndrome is named for the space (the thoracic outlet) between your lower neck and upper chest where this grouping of nerves and blood vessels is found. The bottom line was that while pitching, Richard’s clavicle and rib pinched his subclavian artery. So, while he would start off pitching fine during a game, a problem would eventually arise because of the repeated pressure on his subclavian artery; then his arm would start to ache and ultimately feel “dead”.J R Richard SI cover

Richard underwent rehabilitation and missed the rest of the season.

The story of J. R. Richard serves the purpose that the man, the athlete, was in a serious and debilitating health situation and all the evidence, all his complaints, was ignored.  Not one person that was in authority that could have done something to help did a thing. They said he was a malingerer. That he suffered from false pride and he was jealous of Nolan Ryan. He wanted more money. Everything except “Wow, maybe this guy really does have something seriously wrong and we should take him at his word and do some very extensive tests on him.”

His then wife, Carolyn, told reporters, “It took death, or nearly death, to get an apology. They should have believed him.” Yes, they should have.

The man almost died because people would not listen to what he, an athlete, was saying about his body. Richard is quite possible the patron saint of the vilified athlete who isn’t “man” enough to play through his injuries or to get rehabbed as fast as possible so he can get back to helping our team win. Well, I got a news flash. It ain’t anybody’s team but the person, or persons, who own the team and pay the salaries of everyone connected to the team. And, athletes don’t really owe us fans, or any media people, anything except to do the best they can when they are playing whatever sport they play. And, when it comes down to who makes the decision on when they play after an injury then it is entirely theirs to make no matter what anybody may think.

In many ways the mentality of people today is not so damn different from the days when an athlete would just shake off an injury, show some so-called  intestinal fortitude, and just go back out on the field and do whatever it took to win the game. Brother, it wasn’t worth it then, and, it damn well does not need, nor should it, be that way today. Besides who the hells body is it anyway? Not yours, or mine, but the athletes and no one knows that body, and the mind that goes with it, than the athlete himself.

Post note: J. R. Richard spent the next few seasons in the minors before being released by the Astros in 1984. After his professional baseball career ended, Richard became involved in unsuccessful business deals and went through two divorces, which led to him being homeless and destitute by 1994. He was found living under a Houston freeway underpass. At this point he met Reverend Floyd Lewis of the New Testament Church of South Houston and eventually became a member and then a minister in the church. He has since spent countless hours helping the homeless and mentoring the area’s youth that need a guiding hand.

J.R. is now the Associate Pastor at Mt. Pleasant Church in Houston and often serves as a motivational speaker around the country.

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