Bernstein: Doctors Conflicted Over Football

By Dan Bernstein —
CBSChicago.com senior columnist

(CBS) The Bears-Saints game Sunday and the aftermath is just the latest reckoning for players and fans over the dangers of the sport they love and the endemic inhumanity within.

In a span of 24 hours, we saw Bears tight end Zach Miller shred an artery in his lower leg and undergo an emergency vascular graft surgery to avoid amputation, then teammate Jerrell Freeman hit with a 10-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use that he seemed to blame on efforts to combat brain-damage symptoms. There’s a good chance that neither NFL veteran ever plays again, with Miller just hoping to keep his leg now after a string of traumatic injuries and Freeman openly conceding that he may be done.

The grim conversation that ensued has also raised questions about those professionals who repair and rehabilitate the combatants, only to send them back out to inflict more harm on themselves and others for our entertainment. The more we understand about how the game hurts those who choose to participate, the harder it can become for the doctors involved to justify their roles.

“It really is becoming an ethical dilemma,” Dr. Brandon Bowers told 670 The Score.

Bowers is an injury and physical therapy expert with Athletico Fitness, and he described the concerns.

“What they have to keep in mind is the livelihood and the ability of these players to go out and function at the same level,” he said. “Oftentimes, in football, we’ll see guys get taped back up and sent back out there just so they can contribute to the team. But, at the end of the day, you really have to keep the livelihood and the player in mind as well.”

That’s when it comes to the professionals, of course, those compensated for assuming such risks and playing with a greater degree of informed consent. The more serious issues occur for those working on the college, high school and youth levels, where the concern can be about those too young to decide for themselves but still exposed to football’s perils. Two other doctors with whom we spoke wished to remain anonymous.

An orthopedist who works prep games shared the questions he often asks himself.

“Does giving sideline coverage create a false sense of safety? It certainly doesn’t do anything to prevent injuries from happening,” he said. “Should I be enabling a taxpayer-supported injury delivery system? On the other hand, the school I cover is not well-endowed, and perhaps I’m providing a much-needed service for the football players as well as the rest of the athletic body.”

Another complication is the financial aspect, with sports partnerships critical to revenue and marketing for certain practices.

“The pressures are great from my corporate overlords to continue to provide this service, as it generates some business for the hospital,” he said. “The pressures to perform a service I would not otherwise offer if I were in private practice are very real. If it were that simple, I would have walked away from football coverage.”

The other doctor is a pediatric specialist and a lifelong fan of the game who described the cognitive dissonance as both a spectator and physician.

“I’ve been feeling particularly torn of late,” she admitted. “I feel guilty for enjoying it so much when it’s clearly so detrimental to players’ health and well-being long term. I also think it speaks to the issue of ‘using’ kids from a lower socioeconomic status for our viewing pleasure.”

And as someone who works with children, specifically, she hopes the right things are being done for the right reasons.

“Our ultimate goal is to protect kids at all costs, in all situations,” she said. “Those of us who choose this profession are typically pretty paternalistic, and feel responsibility to protect kids from adults trying to take advantage of them. Especially in the context of protecting kids who are potentially less likely to be able to watch out for themselves, the line between helping kids get back to it and ‘doing no harm’ I fear is terribly thin.”

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s “Bernstein and Goff Show” in afternoon drive. You can follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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