Is it okay to for an athlete to lose his starting job while out with an injury?
With 49ers quarterback Alex Smith reportedly being traded to the Kansas City Chiefs for the first pick of the second round of the 2013 Draft, this question comes back to the forefront.
On Oct. 29, Smith went 18-of-19 for 232 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Niners to a 24-3 victory. In the 49ers’ next game, Smith started 7-of-8 before leaving the game with a concussion. He threw one more pass the rest of the season.
Was this unfair to Smith? After perhaps the best stretch of his football career, a concussion cost him his job. How unjust!
Smith’s situation is not unique. The most famous story of an athlete losing his job for good from missing a game is New York Yankee Wally Pipp. The story — which may not be 100 percent accurate — is that Pipp took a game off due to injury. Lou Gehrig took his place in the starting lineup. Gehrig played the next 2,130 games.
But Smith’s story takes new importance in the age of the concussion, perhaps the most dangerous injury to try to play through. The NFL is in a fight for its long-term survival against the litigation stemming from head injuries. In response, the league is doing everything it can to ensure player safety — at least the NFL says it is — especially with regards to head injuries.
But no matter what the NFL or its teams may say, players who watch what happened to Smith will be scared to miss time with a concussion. In fact, as recently as the 2011 season, top players said they would hide concussions to try to stay in the game.
“The bottom line is: You have to be able to put food on the table,” Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew told the Associated Press in 2011. “No one’s going to sign or want a guy who can’t stay healthy. I know there will be a day when I’m going to have trouble walking. I realize that. But this is what I signed up for. Injuries are part of the game. If you don’t want to get hit, then you shouldn’t be playing.”
Many players have echoed Jones-Drew’s statements. To be fair, the league has come a long way. At least now, at the top, playing through serious injuries is becoming frowned upon, and punishing players for missing a game due to injury is absurd. But though the 49ers certainly weren’t punishing Smith for being injured, his time on the sideline gave Colin Kaepernick a chance to win the job, and he took full advantage.
And faced with that chance, would you expect an athlete to do anything other than play through the pain — especially an NFL quarterback whose presence on the field for every single game means so much to his team’s season?
When a manager walks to the mound with two outs in the eighth and his starter is at 125 pitches, what do you want the pitcher to say? I don’t want my starter saying, “Coach, take me out. I’m done.”
I want my hurting starter — or my woozy quarterback — to tell the coach that he wants to stay in. No matter how tired he is, no matter how hurt he may feel, I want him to say that he can get the job done.
But I want the coach to take him out anyway.
That’s how you stop Alex Smith’s situation from convincing NFL players to play through concussions. You don’t have to protect his starting job while he’s on the bench if you’re the one who forces him to go there.
As a coach — or a team doctor — it is your responsibility to put the player’s health and safety ahead of a game. It’s a brutally tough challenge, but it’s a vital part of the job.
It’s too much to ask of a player — especially the ultimate competitors you see playing in the NFL or other professional sports leagues — to think about their long-term health in the middle of the game. To be fair, that might be too much for coaches as well, but at that level, then the trainer has to be empowered to make more decisions.
Otherwise, whether or not a backup takes the job of an injured starter ever again, players are going to try to play through injuries — even concussions — to help their teams win.
Sam Fisher will never lose his job as the managing editor of CoHo. Or so he thinks. Email him about your job security anxieties at safisher “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.