Markelle Fultz and the catch-22 of playing hurt

USA Today Images

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. 

Eagles fans troll Patriots fans again with billboard outside Gillette Stadium

@GinaMarie0125 on Twitter

Eagles fans troll Patriots fans again with billboard outside Gillette Stadium

The Eagles swear they've moved on from Super Bowl LII, but fans? Yeah, that's never going to happen.

With the Super Bowl rematch just two days away and the Birds heading up to Foxboro, Massachusetts, Eagles fans are making sure the Patriots and their fans remember who won the Super Bowl just a few months ago.

Gina Lewis, a Massachusetts-based Birds fan, erected a billboard at the intersection of Route 1 and North Street, which is about one mile outside of Gillette Stadium.

So folks driving to Gillette Stadium from Boston, and even up from Philly, will see the billboard as they head to the Eagles-Patriots preseason game Thursday.

In terms of billboards, it's not exactly the prettiest. The idea was fantastic, but the execution could have been better. The notion that Patriots fans will have to be reminded that the Eagles beat New England, 41-33, in Super Bowl LII is brilliant.

That's not a knock on the person who designed the billboard, though. Jordan Spector is a Philadelphia-based artist who designed the billboard.

The original text on the billboard was supposed to be: "No one likes us and we don’t care." But the billboard company forced them to change it.

To be fair to Spector, the actual design of the billboard is crisper than the one that went up. You can support Spector's work (you should because art is fun) here.

Some background as to how the billboard came to be a thing. Back in June, Lewis tweeted this:

It doesn't appear the coworker came through on his promise, but that doesn't really matter. Lewis started a GoFundMe, which remains active, to raise the $5,000 to pay for the billboard.

After it reached its goal, the GoFundMe remains active and the next $5,000 will be donated to Carson Wentz's AO1 Foundation. At the time of this posting, it's raised $6,530 out of its $10,000 goal.

If you're obliged to donate, you can here.

More on the Eagles

Joel Embiid attempts bicycle kick at neighborhood soccer game in Cameroon

Drew Hanlen/NBC Sports

Joel Embiid attempts bicycle kick at neighborhood soccer game in Cameroon

One of my favorite Brett Brown quotes about Joel Embiid from a few years ago is that he's "Shaquille (O'Neal) with soccer feet."

We've seen Embiid show off those soccer skills he developed as a youngster in Cameroon long before he ever picked up a basketball.

But Embiid put together two of his favorite pastimes over the weekend for one amazing video: soccer and crashing a local pickup game.

Embiid has become rather infamous in the Philly area for crashing random people's pickup games at local playgrounds. So when he traveled to Africa recently to play in the NBA Africa Game and the locals there tend to play futbol, Embiid joined in their festive games.

Footage has appeared on the Internet of Embiid playing with some locals in his native Cameroon. It's as cool as you'd expect, except for this one move Jojo attempts to pull off ...

One of Embiid's trainers for the summer, Drew Hanlen, took time away from fixing Markelle Fultz's shot to play some footie with him at the neighborhood game and shared the footage to his Instagram.

Now, there is perhaps no person in professional sports I find more likeable than Joel Embiid. He's got a rare combination of elite skill and an incredible personality that makes him easy to root for in Philadelphia. All of that said, Jo, buddy, what in the world are you doing attempting a bicycle kick? Perhaps he's got elite soccer skill and he can attempt a bicycle kick with ease. But he can't defy gravity. That 7-foot-2 body has to come back down and land on earth. Please be safe while you're having fun out there. The city of Philly needs you.

Good effort though. Think he's playing too many soccer video games TBH.

More on the Sixers