Markelle Fultz and the catch-22 of playing hurt

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Markelle Fultz and the catch-22 of playing hurt

It’s the start of a new NBA season, so naturally there’s yet another debacle surrounding an injury to a highly-touted and highly-drafted Philadelphia 76ers rookie. Like Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons before him, Markelle Fultz, the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is hurt, this time with a shoulder injury.

But unlike the others who sat out their rookie years, Fultz attempted to play through the pain, during the preseason and the first four games of the regular season. And the results weren’t pretty: In the first four games, Fultz drastically altered his shot from how it looked in college, did not even attempt any three-pointers, and exhibited an ugly form while shooting free throws that many observers likened more to an Olympic shot put motion than to any kind of basketball shot.

This charade was halted on Tuesday when Fultz’s agent first said that the player had had fluid drained from his shoulder, and later backtracked that Fultz had in fact received a cortisone shot, leading the team to announce Wednesday that Fultz would sit out at least three games.

Much has been said and written, in both the local and national media, about how badly the Sixers have bungled this, and how they have once again both mismanaged an injury and failed to be transparent about it. This is all true. But I want to address another angle that's gotten less attention — the unfair, counterproductive pressure on athletes to play at times when they’re obviously too hurt to do so.

Fultz, it’s clear, has not been healthy enough to play this year, but he's played anyway. According to GM Bryan Colangelo when he met with the media Wednesday, Fultz wanted to play, and there was no diagnosed medical reason for him not to — that is, until it became clear that he was in too much pain to play well.

There’s another reason, I think, why Fultz played: the culture of sports, from fans to media to team management, tells athletes at every turn that they must tough it out and play through injuries, at risk of being labeled as "soft,” or perhaps something worse.

Yes, if you’re a player, you want to play. But too often, when playing through injuries at less than 100%, athletes actively hurt their teams by doing so. No one who watched the first four Sixers games could honestly say that having Markelle Fultz on the court, in that condition, was helping the team.   

Fultz, then, had a choice: He could sit out the start of the season, at the risk of getting the “soft” label right at the outset of his career, at a time when much of the team’s fanbase is already up in arms about Embiid's minutes restrictions. Or he could play, clearly hurt and not especially well, and set off a panic of another kind.

And as a result, four games into the rookie season of a 19-year-old who’s clearly not himself, a lot of Sixers observers are ready to cut bait, or ask why the team didn’t draft Lonzo Ball or Jayson Tatum. This is obviously incredibly premature.

It’s time for the sports world to re-think this attitude. Injuries are not a failure of manhood or of moral character. Toughness may be an important virtue for an athlete, but there ought to be no shame in a player admitting that he’s too hurt to continue, if that’s the case. Fans and media members may question it, but then it’s always a lot easier to be judgmental about someone else’s physical pain than your own.

This change is easier said than done — and it took a concussion crisis for the NFL to even think about moving away from the “rub some dirt on it” mentality — but it’s nevertheless necessary.

This attitude can have longer-term effects, too. When a player suffers a season-ending injury, for a lot of fans they become out-of-sight, out-of-mind, until it’s about time for them to come back the next year. But being an athlete who’s out of action, especially with a long-term injury and uncertainty about the future, can be a depressing, soul-crushing experience, which is something to keep in mind with the multiple season-ending Eagles injuries this week.

We all remember the stories about Joel Embiid’s sad rookie year, the hotel room and the Shirley Temples. And if the player appears in public, and smiles, or even dances? God help him. Top NBA pick-turned-injury-casualty Greg Oden admitted to ESPN the Magazine in July that he fell into depression, and later alcoholism, during his long injury hiatuses, when he rarely left his home because he was terrified of being seen or photographed in public doing anything besides rehabbing.

It’s merely the dawn of Markelle Fultz’s career, and chances are still good that he’ll end having a long and successful career in Philadelphia. Awful as it is to have another prized Sixers rookie out of action for any length of time, it’s undoubtedly beneficial to all sides for him to get healthy before venturing to help the Sixers again. The problem, alas, was that he felt he had to play hurt in the first place. 

Watch Eagles roast Jay Ajayi after 71-yard run for getting caught


Watch Eagles roast Jay Ajayi after 71-yard run for getting caught

It's not everyday you see an Eagles player take the ball and run for 71 yards. So Philadelphia fans understandably went bonkers when Jay Ajayi did just that in the Birds' win over the Cowboys on Sunday.

It's also not that frequent that you see a dude get chased down from behind on such a play.

Sadly, the latter happened to Ajayi and his teammates let him hear it on the sidelines after. The fantastic Inside the NFL gave us an up-close look at the roasting.

You almost feel bad for Ajayi, like Kenjon Barner is laying it on a little too thick.

"You slow as $#@!," one player tells him.

"They're gonna lower my speed on Madden," Ajayi says.

Chip Kelly is going back where he belongs

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Chip Kelly is going back where he belongs

After spending the year out of football, former Eagles coach Chip Kelly is returning to the sideline — and might be aligning with ex-Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman in the process.

According to reports, Kelly is expected to accept a head coaching job at one of two college football programs. The decision is down to Florida and UCLA, and he is rumored to have already turned away other high-profile programs such as Nebraska and Tennessee.

UCLA may be Kelly's most likely landing spot at this point, with alumnus Aikman putting on a "full-court press," says ESPN's Mark Schlabach, and Florida supposedly wanting an answer ASAP.

Wherever Kelly winds up going, that should end his unsuccessful foray into the NFL once and for all. Consider this an obituary of sorts.

The move will cement Kelly as a "college coach," if his pro tenure hadn't accomplished that already. After guiding the Eagles to the playoffs and being named Coach of the Year in his first season, he missed the postseason the next two years and was fired. Kelly got the hook again after one miserable season with the 49ers, bottoming out with a 2-14 record.

There are no shortage of excuses for why Kelly flamed out in the NFL. Lack of talent — specifically under center — was certainly a factor, though his failed stint as the chief talent evaluator in his final season with the Eagles certainly contributed to that.

The simple truth is not everything that works in college translates at the next level, and Kelly never adjusted.

Kelly only turns 54 this week, so a return to the professional ranks years down the road isn't completely out of the question. After his last two trainwreck seasons in the league, it's difficult to imagine what an organization would still see.

Employing schemes that aren't suited to the team's personnel, calling the same 10 to 15 plays every game, eliminating the quarterback's ability to call an audible or even something as small as never using a snap count may work at university. Those concepts are fundamentally opposed to what has been successful in the NFL.

Honestly, it's kind of too bad. The Eagles could use that easy W on the schedule periodically.

Perhaps the Eagles should just be grateful to have survived Kelly's radical changes without overhauling the entire roster again, and somehow coming out better off for everything. After releasing DeSean Jackson, trading away LeSean McCoy, trading for Sam Bradford, and spending huge sums of money on the likes of DeMarco Murray and Byron Maxwell -- to name a few, and all in the span of a year -- the franchise easily could've wound up in the tank.

There's no denying Kelly looked like a genius while at Oregon, racking up 46-7 record and three top-five finishes in four seasons as head coach. Yet like so many college coaches before him, and many bound to come after, he was never destined for sustained success in the NFL.