Art Caplan recently popped up over at SI.com as part of a piece looking at some of the occupational health concerns of professional athletes. As Art points out, most pro athletes rely on team doctors. And those doctors often have a conflict of interest:
“The doctors work for the clubs, their duty is to maximize the ability of the player to get the job done,” he says. “It’s the ‘double agent’ problem. They’re expected to do what’s good for the club, not necessarily the player. And that may mean clearing a player to play when he’s carrying an injury or telling him to play through the pain.”
“A medical doctor should protect the long-term health of the player. But the club is only interested in the player’s health as it relates to his playing career. The athletes are often young and stupid and they don’t know any better, they don’t think about getting their own doctor for a second opinion. And the clubs prey upon the relative ignorance of the athlete. In fact, they milk those images of courage and virtue. As for the public, they don’t care what a player’s body might be like once they retire.”
The long-term physical toll exacted by playing a professional sport — and who should pay for the consequences — has been a very contentious issue lately for the National Football League. A few months back the NFL announced it would add $10 million to its medical fund for retired players in order to help pay for joint replacements, cardiovascular screening and assisted living. The NFL’s contribution follows years of criticism that the league hasn’t done enough to address the medical needs of former players. The fight has gotten nasty at times, pitting retired players against both the league and the players’ union. There were threats of neck breaking and invocations of Upton Sinclair.
The retired players’ main argument has been that a lot of people — the league, owners, today’s players — are now rich because guys back in the day sacrificed their bodies each Sunday for wages that would now be considered relatively small. That argument seems to have connected with some people. A group of current players recently announced they would make donations to a fund for retired players. One current player called it a ” humanitarian issue.”
So what part — if any — do sports fans play in all this? Art stated in that SI piece that fans “don’t care what a player’s body might be like once they retire.” Some people would argue that today’s players are very well compensated for the physical sacrifices they make. But if we’re going to heartily cheer the often violent action on the field and support this multi-billion dollar industry built in part on the destruction of its workers’ bodies, I wonder if we as fans bear some responsibility, too.