There was a very telling sequence in last night's excellent episode of Hard Knocks that perfectly illustrates the culture of "toughness" that ultimately dooms so many football players to retirements filled with crippling, life-altering pain.
Football is a tough sport. You're going to get injured. You're going to have aches and pains. You're probably never going to be playing at 100% of your health. But there is such a pervasive attitude that anyone who does sit out with any injury short of a broken bone is some kind of wimp, it makes any pronouncements about the NFL "looking out for" its players seem laughable.
It's all very subtle and non-threatening, but it's everywhere you look. The snide comments from assistant coaches. ("I don't talk to hurt guys.") Head coaches lecturing players about muscle strains. Trainers giving bucket hats to players receiving treatment, so that they're easily singled out for mockery. Everyone will say, we're just breaking balls. It's just good-natured ribbing, part of the camaraderie of training camp. But that stuff adds up and if you don't think it affects a player's mental state you're kidding yourself.
Later in the episode, there was a moment when the same coach who was teasing rookie Rey Maualuga about his bad shoulder, implores him to "don't be a jackass" and speak up if the injury is bothering him. But which of his coach's remarks do you think has the bigger impact? The constant shots at his manhood, how he's letting down his team, the direct implication that he needs to be on the field to secure his starting spot? Or the brief concern shown just seconds before he goes into a drill? He's long ago received the message.
Granted, a documentary doesn't show everything, but anyone who has been around a locker room (or even read our Softball Failures) knows what that culture of toughness is about. No matter what safety measures the league takes or the vast amount of medical training that goes into care for the walking wounded, it will never outweigh that subtle psychological game that tells athletes that injuries are for pussies.
Hard Knocks [HBO]