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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.