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“Play through the pain”

McGill athletes respond to injury

When professional athletes are injured, the news travels far and wide. To be sure, this varies between sports, and athletes, and is dependent on factors like whether the player commands a cult of personality, or whether the events leading to the injury stood out in any way. But on the whole, injuries statistics are fairly well-kept and accessible for high profile leagues such as the National Hockey League and the National Football League. Prominent sports networks (ESPN, for example) give them column inches (or whatever the online equivalent is) and television time. And while these leagues often do little to remedy the high occurrence of injuries among their players, there is pressure for them to enact policies to protect athletes, largely based on these statistics. But for university-level athletes, even those playing in varsity sports, injury occurrences are not as widely reported, not as publicly visible, and therefore, not as frequently discussed or scrutinized.

High-profile injuries in university-level athletics can also bring about policy changes. After Bishop’s University football player Jonathan Fortin suffered a neck injury on October 4, on Molson stadium’s artificial turf, CBC reported that McGill’s athletics director was reconsidering policy concerning keeping an ambulance on-site for future games.

But many injuries at the university level go largely unnoticed by those outside of the team, and though student athletes don’t get the amount of media attention that professional athletes do, their injuries can still put them out for a season, and can impact their lives outside the sporting world as well. Kuzi Murwira, a McGill Rugby player between 2010-12 who experienced five concussions over a span of two years, has since stopped playing for McGill Rugby on the advice of his doctor and sister. “They weren’t major concussions, but because they happened over two years – that’s a relatively short time frame.”

The accumulation of injuries can end athletic careers, as it did with Murwira, but a single injury can end a career as well. “I don’t think at first anybody realized what had happened,” said Steve Eldon Kerr of his partial shoulder dislocation in 2010. Eldon Kerr was a player on the then-varsity McGill Ultimate Frisbee team, and suffered his injury during practice on the Molson stadium field. After attempting to play through the pain for a little while longer, Eldon Kerr was told to leave practice to have his shoulder checked. As a player in a sport that lacked “the resources of, say, Football or Hockey,” Eldon Kerr dealt with his injury on his own through physiotherapy.

Though he noted that “the attitude from coaches nowadays is pretty professional,” and that “[they] seem aware of the danger of playing with an injury,” Eldon Kerr still perceives the existence of a sports culture wherein players force themselves to play, and some fear the label of ‘injury-prone.’ This can lead to hiding injuries from coaches, and also poses potential physical dangers to the athlete, something Eldon Kerr has personal experience with. He noted that in high school, he often played through a knee injury, relying on painkillers. “A phrase that comes up in your mind is: ‘play through the pain.’”

Murwira agreed that “people definitely do play with injuries,” but added that small injuries could add up, and so, “once the season starts, you never continue at 100 per cent.” The problem of individuals playing with injuries is somewhat mitigated, though, by the fact that each injured player seeking to get back in the game is required to obtain clearance from the team’s athletic therapist. Murwira said that though many “always want to push [themselves],” he had never personally felt pressured to play before achieving full recovery.

Though student athletes have a range of experiences with recovery, just as they have a range of experiences with injury, both athletes noted the importance of providing information, as well as care. “I think people working with young athletes should be really serious about communicating the importance of a proper recovery,” said Eldon Kerr. Murwira noted that the athletic therapists he worked gave him good advice on how to deal with his injuries, leading him to be “grateful for the support structures that are there already.”

Making information available to student athletes can happen at the physiotherapy clinic, or it can happen before an injury occurs – hopefully with the possibility of preventing that injury. In a move toward this goal, the McGill Athletics and Recreation has published articles entitled “Female Athletes and ACL Injuries” and “Female Athlete Triad,” – under the Sport Medicine section of their website – to educate female athletes about the types of injuries they might try to either prevent or handle. Though these offerings do address important sports medicine topics, they fall woefully short, in that they leave a range of situations unexplained.

Education is key, not only for athletes look to prevent and treat ‘visible’ or ‘obvious’ injuries such as joint dislocations, sprains, and broken bones, but it also seems to be a factor in controlling head injuries and concussions. Dr. Scott Delaney, a team physician for the Montreal Alouettes who also practices at McGill, told the Niagara Falls Review that in a ten-year period at McGill, there were a total of 226 reported concussions from the hockey, soccer, and football teams. However, 80 per cent of male athletes in his study reported possibly having a concussion but never seeking treatment, citing reasons such as not wanting to be pulled from play, echoing the words of both Murwira and Edon Kerr.

McGill varsity teams should encourage their athletes to recognize signs, speak up, and educate themselves about injuries and the limitations of their bodies. While coaches should be commended for recognizing the dangers of athletes playing with injuries, the reality of players hiding their injuries or “playing through the pain” cannot cease without a change in the culture that makes student athletes feel they have to play no matter what. Making a change to this culture, however, may not be as simple as publishing comprehensive statistics on athletic injuries in university-level sports; Kurwira asserted that a top-down effect, from the professional leagues, may be the most effective vehicle for changing the predominant conceptions, noting that, “Once these concerns are raised at the top level, […] it trickles down to the juniors.”

In the meantime, Murwira noted that his own post-varsity experience of “helping out with coaching, […] at some of the junior leagues as well as at my old club” has helped him to appreciate both the impermanence and beauty of sport. Murwira stressed that, “What’s important is that [athletes] understand there’s always life after sport.”