Al Jefferson has been limping his way through the NBA playoffs. The Charlotte Bobcats’ center tore his plantar fascia — that big muscle that runs between your heel and toe and gives your foot its arch — in Game One of the team’s playoff series against the Heat, but continued hobbling around the court immediately following the injury. Jefferson walked off in a walking boot that night but was back on the court for Game Two, still seemingly in pain, before he was forced to leave and deal with the worsening injury.
“I just ran down the court and I felt it rip basically all the way through,” Jefferson said after the game. “It came up midway through my foot and it was just pain. But the doctor said there wasn’t nothing more I could do to it to hurt it, so I just have to play through it.”
Bobcats fans are definitely disappointed. The big man is known for his footwork, in particular, so the injury is likely to limit some of his most important skills. But overall people seem impressed with Jefferson for playing through his injury. Heat coach Eric Spoelstra deemed Jefferson a “tough hombre” while Jefferson’s own coach said, “You’ve got to respect that he’s out there battling. He has no mobility, basically. He fought hard.”
Media outlets were similarly professing their respect: “He was injected twice in Game One to even get into the game, and in such short turnaround gutted it out,” said The Lead Off’s Allie LaForce, “it was awesome.” On The Starters on NBA TV, host Tas Melas guessed that the “Bobcats had to be inspired with him playing through the injury,” while co-host JE Skeets said he would tip his hat to Big Al out of respect.
The whole thing is reminiscent of Isiah Thomas in Game Six of the 1988 finals while suffering from a sprained ankle, which the NBA has deemed ‘heroic,’ or to Michael Jordan’s famous flu game, when the basketball All-Star, in Game Five of the 1997 NBA finals, took the court despite having been curled up in the fetal position, pale and sweating profusely, just two hours before tip-off. Jordan is credited with winning the game for the Bulls by making a key 3-point shot in the last 25 second. The performance has been turned into a heroic moment in NBA history, and there’s even a currently-running Gatorade commercial that centers on it:
“Winning from within” is a lovely sentiment. But that’s not really what Thomas nor Jordan was doing. Thomas was hurting himself even more for the sake of a single game. Jordan was pushing his body to its limits for the sake of his team, but also at their expense; they had to handle the same germ-covered basketball that he had palmed just seconds before. And, more broadly, people like Jordan and Thomas set a precedent that players have followed ever since. Which is where Jefferson comes in.
From a labor perspective, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Jefferson’s boss — his coach — is talking publicly about how admirable it is that Jefferson is playing through an injury and that the team leans heavily on the big man. (The irony is not lost on your writer, either, that Jordan is the owner of the Bobcats.) And while there’s no evidence it’s compulsory that Jefferson play, no one is benching him. Jefferson may be playing of his own volition, but whether self- or externally-induced, it’s part of a troubling culture in sports.
“You can see where people will make some compromises with their health in certain critical situations, but it’s very important that the athlete be really well informed and that the choice be an informed one,” says Dr. John Heil, a consultant for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Heil is a sports psychology clinician and also teaches on the subject.
“There’s pretty horrible stories about athletes being forced to play and suffering catastrophic consequences — not from an injury perspective but from a career perspective, not being able to play. I was involved in a court case where that was in fact the case. The athlete was pressured to play and he was hoping nothing would go wrong but it did, and this was a high-profile division one collegiate quarterback and that was it, his career was done. He really didn’t have a choice.”
Heil stresses that “pain” and “injury” are different — Jordan’s flu, for example, may have been painful, but it had no lasting impact on his ability to play the sport. But he says that the pressure athletes feel to keep playing can be very real.
“It becomes very complicated based on not only people’s expectations but how you filter those expectations and to what extent you may take them upon yourself, “ Heil explained.
The culture of playing through injuries isn’t isolated to basketball. It’s the same sentiment that inspires football players to get up, woozy, from a serious blow to the head and return to the field. It’s why fans of the Washington football team cringed as they watched star quarterback Robert Griffin III hobble back onto the gridiron after his injured knee went from hurt to torn apart during Washington’s short run of the NFL playoffs last year. And at its heart, it’s a type of machismo and overconfidence that invades every sport (that’s not to say it’s entirely male — the same type of stubbornness in female athletes is on the rise).
“A trouble spot is that athletes tend to be short sighted — they may feel it’s now or never when that’s not really the case,” Heil says. “Yeah, play through pain, that’s okay. Know the consequences. But sometimes the other factor is the person is trying to play through injury but their ability to do so is poor, and it’s better for them not to do so. Sometimes it’s better off to give someone else a chance than to play hampered.”
This could well be the case with Jefferson. His team is down 2–0 against the Heat, the number two seed in the East to the Bobcats’ number seven. He could keep putting all 289 pounds of his weight onto his injured foot, not looking like his original self, or he could give it a rest.
The pressure to play through injuries isn’t necessarily a big problem for professionals — they have some autonomy — but it can trickle down to high school or college athletes who can’t always make choices for themselves as easily. On any level, though, that pressure is real. And while Jefferson may be a mild case, sometimes the results of playing through pain or the expectations that athletes should can be tragic.
“It’s very important that the athlete be really well informed and that the choice be an informed one,” Heil says. “And if it is, and the athlete is really on board and the athlete is really the one making the choice, then it is their choice to make. The problem is when someone starts making that choice for them, when accurate information isn’t provided to them. Now we’re starting to get into trouble.”