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In the NFL, when is an injury not an injury?

When is an injury not an injury in the NFL? Apparently, sometimes an injury is not an injury when it isn’t put on the NFL injury report. 
Much of the focus on the Bills during the bye week related to defensive end Mario Williams and his left wrist.  Williams’ performance has been disappointing thus far, and he partly attributed it to a wrist injury.  The manner in which Williams’ injury was reported (or not reported)  has raised questions, especially since Williams is the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL (He signed a 6-year, $300 million contract in March). Williams had never publicly mentioned the problem until a couple of weeks ago, after being heavily criticized for his play. It was only around that time that the Bills listed him on the NFL’s official injury report. The team argued that the wrist wasn’t bad enough to cause him to miss any games or practices, but the NFL fined the Bills $20,000 for violating the league policy on reporting injuries. This past week Williams had surgery on the wrist.
Interestingly, the current issue of Men’s Journal has an article quoting former NFL QB and current SNY commentator Ray Lucas about his injury problems and subsequent abuse of painkillers. Lucas talked about his various injuries, and said there was only one coach he held a grudge against: current Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. “If I ever see Dave Wannstedt on the street, there’s gonna be a bad misunderstanding.” Lucas claimed that when he was with Miami in 2002, then Dolphins head coach Wannstedt pressured him to take medications in order to return to a game following a shoulder injury. 
According to Lucas, doctors told him not to re-enter the game after examining the injury. Lucas went on to say that, when they left the room he was given painkillers by the trainer and went back on the field. “But I couldn’t feel my arm and threw four picks because I wasn’t man enough to say no,” said Lucas.  Wannstedt denied the charge, and said he would never pressure an athlete to play against doctor’s orders.  
I don’t know about the veracity of Lucas’ claims, but I do know that Bills head coach Chan Gailey’s public comments during the whole Williams’ wrist episode (please don’t call it “Wrist-Gate”) were bizarre. Just one example: When interviewed about the surgery on the wrist by the Buffalo News shortly after it took place, Gailey was either completely evasive or strangely uninformed, saying: “I don’t know exactly what it was, to be honest with you. I don’t know if they did something non-invasive or invasive.”
Just last season there was a similar situation involving QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Bills started off very well last year behind “Fitzmagic”, posting  a record of 5-2 after defeating the Washington Redskins,  23-0 in Toronto. However, after that game the team was 1-8 for the rest of the year.  Fitzpatrick’s performance declined, as he threw 16 of his 23 interceptions (the most in the NFL) in the final nine games.  After the season, Coach Chan Gailey told the media that Fitzpatrick had broken two ribs against Washington.  Gailey insisted, however, that that he did not know the full extent of Fitzpatrick’s injury at the time. During the season there were rumors that Fitzpatrick was hurt, though his name never showed up on the NFL injury report during that time. 
Every NFL team is required to report all of their injuries to the league and the media. There are four levels of injuries that can be reported. “Probable” means that the player has a better than 50 percent chance of playing. “Questionable” means that the player has a 50-50 chance of playing. “Doubtful” means that there’s a 75 percent chance that the player will be out. “Out” just means that they won’t be playing at all. It goes without saying that these definitions can be very subjective.  These reports have been around in some form since 1947 in order to reduce the chance for inside information after a game-fixing scandal the previous year.
The NFL has fined the Buffalo Bills $20,000 for failing to disclose Williams’ left wrist injury. Pro Football Talk reported that the NFL warned Buffalo that, if the team committed further violations, the fines would increase and that the league could take away draft picks. 
Injuries to NFL players are a big concern for gamblers and fans, but they are even a greater concern for the players themselves —- at least they should be. With all of the recent attention focused on the very serious long-term health issues caused by injuries in the NFL, the league should more strictly enforce the injury list rules. 
Sports lore is full of stories about heroic athletes who overcame pain and injury to triumph. Curt Schilling won Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Yankees on a stitched-up injured ankle in what became known as “The Bloody Sock Game.”  Despite a torn thigh muscle, Willis Reed started Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers and inspired his team to an NBA Championship. In 1994 running back Emmit Smith suffered a separated shoulder in the first half of a game against the Giants, but came back to lead Dallas to a crucial 16-13 overtime victory that clinched the NFC East title.
Those are great tales, but we now know better than ever that playing with injuries can cause serious long-term health issues. The NFL should not only focus on what happens on the field, but it should ensure that measures are taken off the field to protect the health of its players.  Close monitoring of player injuries by the league and team doctors should be done not so much to protect the interests of gamblers, but the lives of the players. Also, the Bills, in particular, need to ensure that the team’s  management culture does not encourage —  or even condone —- players not reporting injuries. 

Written by Tom Tarapacki

Tom Tarapacki

Tom Tarapacki is employed as the Director of Telecommunications, Utilities and Franchises for the City of Buffalo. His book, Chasing the American Dream, was published by Hippocrene Books, and his articles have appeared in a variety of local and national publications. He has written extensively about the history of pro sports in Western New York, particularly the Buffalo Bills, as well as local Polish American history. In addition, his areas of interest include recreation, fitness, and humor.

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