Stephen Silver

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. 

The Phillies trading for Mike Trout is a pipe dream

The Phillies trading for Mike Trout is a pipe dream

Through the first ten days of the 2017 baseball season, one of the most prominent topics surrounding the Philadelphia Phillies has for some reason been... their desperate need to make a trade for Mike Trout. 

Facing a young team bereft of superstars and a lackluster start to the season, a lot of Phillies fans are having starry-eyed dreams about the pride of Millville, N.J. putting on red pinstripes sometime soon. After all, Trout grew up rooting for the Phillies. He goes to Eagles games, and he's even hunting buddies with Carson Wentz. If there's any star athlete on another team who's "one of us," it's Trout. 

Radio hosts and fans alike are calling for the Phils to put a huge package of their top prospects on the table in an offer for the superstar outfielder, a two-time American League MVP and the best player in baseball, and bring Mike Trout to Philadelphia as soon as possible. 

It should go without saying: I would love it if Mike Trout ended up with the Phillies. You would love it. It would be incredible. Trout would probably shatter every record for jersey sales and usher in an era of Phillies excitement unlike anything since the World Series runs of the last decade. 

But let's slow down here. If Trout becomes a Phillie, it's unlikely to happen this year, next year, and probably not the year after that. Trout is not available now and there's no indication of that changing anytime soon. If you're ignoring the Phillies, barring the supposedly imminent arrival of a superstar with no plausible short-term path to your team, that's a great strategy for perpetual disappointment.  

Let's look at the practicalities: Trout is signed with the Angels for four more years, through 2020. The Angels have not made him available, and seem highly unlikely to make him available at any time in the near future. After all, if you were the Angels, wouldn't you want Mike Trout to spend his entire career with your team? And much as the Angels are described as a hopeless team with no future, they are, in the early going, in first place in the AL West. 

Now the Phillies could try to "make them an offer they can't refuse" of every single minor-league prospect you've ever heard of, and "do what ever it takes" to get a deal done. But that's not a strategy likely to get Trout to Philly. 

That's because there's probably no possible combination of players currently in the Phillies organization, whether in the majors or minors, that could get the Angels to say yes on giving up four years of team control of Mike Trout. 

Nola, Crawford and Alfaro? Crawford, Hernandez, Kingery and Hoskins? Herrera, Eickhoff, and Appel? If you were the Angels, would you say yes to any of those packages? I know I wouldn't. Hell, if the Phillies offered their entire current 40-man roster for Trout and Trout alone, I bet the Angels would still say no. 

Trout is, after all, the best player in the game, a probable future Hall of Famer, young and in his prime. Four years is a long time and while the Angels might not be world beaters now, they have plenty more chances to build a winner around Trout before his time in Southern California is up. There’s currently no force applying pressure -- a trade demand, a financial crunch, impending free agency -- that would give the Angels any urgency to trade Trout this year, or even next year. 

But let's say the Angels do eventually decide to trade Trout. Once again, it would likely not happen until 2019 at the earliest. Rather than negotiate with the Phillies exclusively, the Angels would probably attempt to set off a bidding war in which the Phillies would need to compete with various other teams. Were that to happen, the Phils wouldn't be offering their prospect list of today, they'd be offering their prospect list of a couple of years from now, which would probably consist of all different players and might not be as strong as the current list. 

There is a much more likely scenario: Trout signs with the Phillies as a free agent, after the 2020 season. They wouldn't have to trade anything, he'd get to choose his own hometown as his destination, and he'll still only be 29. 

Sure, it's a long time to wait. But it also doesn't entail the Phillies offering to jettison their entire future nucleus in a long-shot trade bid. If they did do that, the Phillies may very well end up with Mike Trout, no other star players and a barren farm system. In other words, they'd look a lot like the Angels right now. 

There's also the assumption that superstar players always live happily ever after once they sign crowd-pleasing nine-figure contracts with their hometown team. See the story of the Minnesota Twins and Joe Mauer for a particularly painful counter-example. 

The Phillies' brain trust has been consistent about their plan for the last 18 months: Develop the current core of young players, and when the team looks like a contender, start spending that sweet Comcast cable cash on free agents. 

Signing Trout in 2020, to go with today's prospects as they approach their primes, would fit with that strategy. But a trade of all their prospects for Mike Trout right now wouldn't be a Matt Klentak move at all -- it would be a Ruben Amaro Jr. move. 

Would the Phillies be better with Mike Trout right now? Yes. Would they be more exciting? No doubt about it. Is it going to happen? It's highly unlikely. Does Trout-to-the-Phillies have any business dominating discussion of the Phillies in 2017? Of course not. 

Phillies fans cheered Chase Utley, and there’s nothing 'soft' about it

Phillies fans cheered Chase Utley, and there’s nothing 'soft' about it

As anyone still watching this Phillies season in mid-August knows, Chase Utley returned to Philadelphia this week for the first time since his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the first game of the series, Tuesday night, Utley was introduced to cheers and a standing ovation as his familiar music, Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, played over the PA system

And throughout the night, the fans kept cheering. They cheered after he hit a solo home run in the 5th inning -- even giving him a curtain call -- and again in the 7th when he hit a grand slam. Utley got another ovation Wednesday, when he went 0-for-5; he was cheered again during the final game of the series Thursday. 

These nice moments, which made national news, have had a predictable backlash. Some in town, especially on both local sports radio stations and on Twitter, aren’t too happy with the fans for continuing to cheer an opposing player, especially during a lopsided loss. And the word a lot of them are using is “soft.” 

This is ridiculous. It’s the sort of armchair tough guy nonsense way too present in sports discourse these days, that takes macho posturing to the logical extreme of near-nihilism. Like 95 percent of arguments that involve one adult referring to another as “soft,” it’s embarrassing buffoonery. "Must not cheer all-time great local athlete! Must HATE instead!"

If you believe that it was wrong to cheer Chase Utley this week in Philadelphia, let me ask you this: What is sports fandom for you? Why do you go to games, why do you watch on TV?  Does it bring you joy or entertainment? Or is being a fan just a never-ending battery of masculinity/"violation" tests, conducted at the behest of no one in particular? 

Suppose the fans at Citizen’s Bank Park this week had risen as one, booed Utley or even given him an indifferent or less-than-enthusiastic reception. What would that have accomplished? Do you think it would cement Philadelphia sports fans once and for all as tough, and principled, and therefore intimidate opposing teams who come through town? Or would it set off another round of national news stories about just how terrible Philly fans are? I think we all know it’s the latter. 

In fact, I’d say that if anything, what actually happened (warm cheers for Utley) vs. what didn’t (three days of boos and maybe worse) shows that maybe the reality of the Philadelphia fan base is better than its reputation. 

And not only that, but it’s not even the first time a former Phillie has been applauded for hitting a home run for the visiting team at Citizen’s Bank Park. Jim Thome was cheered in June 2010, when he homered against the Phillies while playing for the Minnesota Twins. It says a lot about Thome that when he returned to Minnesota as a Phillie in 2012 and homered at Target Field, the fans there cheered him, too. 

Indeed, the superstar athlete who formerly played in Philly coming through town with his new team is a familiar site to most local fans. There was Barkley with the Suns, Lindros with the Rangers, Iverson with the Nuggets, T.O. with the Cowboys, Dawkins with the Broncos and McNabb with the Redskins. But what all of those players have in common is that none of them won championships here and therefore departed town with at least some degree of disappointment. Those circumstances don’t apply to Utley, a key part in the Phillies’ long run of a success that included the 2008 championship. 

So why not cheer Utley? It’s not like he left on bad terms, forced his way out of town or exhibited any Jonathan Papelbon-like behavior. 

Sure, there were always a lot of strange mini-controversies involving Utley throughout his time with the Phillies. He was accused at various times of playing hurt, of not playing hurt, and of not being forthright with the team and/or media about injuries. Some reporters called him prickly and decried the lack of good quotes. Much like Derek Jeter in New York, Utley played for a very long time in one city without ever really establishing a distinct public persona or providing quippy sound bites. The one memorable thing he ever said, the “World F***ing Champions” proclamation during the 2008 championship rally, drew condemnations, although it also ended up on T-shirts. 

But that’s the key: They did win that world (f***ing) championship. Utley, probably for the rest of his life, will return to Philadelphia on each big anniversary of the 2008 title, and when he does he’ll never have to pay for his drinks. He’s a shoo-in to retire as a Phillie, for Wall of Fame induction and for retirement of No. 26, and while he’s got only an outside shot at the Hall of Fame, if Utley enters Cooperstown it’ll probably be with a Phillies cap on his plaque. 

Chase Utley was a beloved player in Philadelphia and a major part of some of the most important moments in franchise history. He provided a whole lot of lifelong memories to a pretty large generation of fans, even my young sons who weren’t born yet in ’08 but still wear Utley shirts. Therefore, he absolutely deserved every one of those ovations and curtain calls, and that moment was obviously worth the hurt feelings of those holding up meaningless codes and unwritten rules. Anyone who doesn’t see that, I have to question if they understand what sports is even about. 

Follow Stephen Silver on Twitter at @StephenSilver