After missing all of the 2002 soccer season due to a knee injury, Jon Skalecki ’05, a defender, was determined to rejoin his team. Not long after his return, however, Skalecki sprained his ankle. He played anyway.
“I played the whole season with a sprained ankle,” Skalecki said. “But I kept it on the down low even though it probably affected how I played. It was not anything I got down about, and I was not looking for sympathy. Everyone gets a knock every now and then and that’s the way it is.”
Stories like Skalecki’s highlight a small but persistent trend in college athletics — the downplaying of minor injuries in the hopes of maintaining player eligibility. With hundreds of Yale athletes devoting countless hours to high-intensity sports every year, injuries are an unwelcome but inevitable part of an athlete’s life. Though underreporting and occasional hiding of injuries is certainly not an exclusively Yale-related issue, some athletes here say that playing at the competitive Division I level leads some to take risks.
“No one is able to go through an entire football season without getting injured,” said Barton Simmons ’05, a defensive back on the football team. “There aren’t a lot of guys who are going to go to the next level. This is the last hurrah and guys are going to make sacrifices.”
Since it is impossible to keep statistics on how many athletes do not report on injuries, and since definitions of what constitutes an ignorable “minor” injury depend largely on individual pain tolerance, it is unclear if the issue of underreporting athletic injuries can be labeled a widespread problem. Based on a familiarity with individual playing styles, coaches and trainers can often identify injured players based on performance at practices or during games. Much of the time, however, coaches and trainers rely on the athletes to act responsibly and report pain.
“It’s often tough to determine who is hiding what,” athletic trainer David Dinapoli said. “Ideally we’d be at every practice, but there are only seven or eight trainers and something like a thousand athletes. [Hiding injuries] happens. It is inherent to sport because there are going to be kids who want to play. Unfortunately, we don’t have ESP.”
Brian Tompkins, the head coach of the men’s soccer team, agreed.
“There have been situations with players who have not necessarily been forthcoming with injuries and whose bodies have later completely broken down,” Tompkins said. “But it all comes down to personal responsibility on the part of the player. It is certainly frustrating when an athlete aggravates an injury we didn’t even know existed.”
With only four years of possible athletic eligibility in college, athletes with borderline serious injuries often must decide between redshirting, or taking an entire season off to save a year of eligibility with the understanding that the redshirted athlete will graduate a year later than the rest of his or her class; simply playing with an injury in the hope that the pain will not intensify; or sitting on the sidelines. Despite pleas from her parents to end her gymnastics career due to her history of injuries and warnings from doctors that she would need surgery on both of her ankles, Leeron Avnery ’06 decided to compete this year. Avnery has had six sports-related surgeries to date. Though Averny’s injury was known to her coaches and trainers, she said that when she learned this past summer that she would need yet more surgery, “I didn’t believe it.” She said she tried to minimize any complaints she made about nagging pains.
“I missed the sport a lot,” Avnery said. “I didn’t think that anything really serious would happen, and I decided that I would compete as long as I could — I’ve been doing gymnastics since I was eight, sometimes for five hours a day, every day. When I’m 40 I’ll probably feel like I’m 80, but that’s what 12 years of gymnastics will do to you. Part of gymnastics is competing through pain.”
Prior to the start of this past season, Avnery decided that she would not compete during her junior and senior years.
“I almost didn’t compete this season,” Avnery said. “My parents were certainly not happy about it; it was something I just wanted to do.”
Internal desire to simply get back out on the field also convinced Stephen Ehikian ’04, a member of the football team, to exaggerate the progress he was making with a hamstring pull in 2002. When he returned to play before the injury had adequately healed, he seriously re-aggravated his hamstring and was forced to spend six games, more than half the season, watching his teammates from the sideline.
“I was monitoring myself and making myself believe that my leg felt better than it did,” Ehikian said. “When the trainers would ask me how I was feeling I would say, ‘Great. It’s feeling great,’ even though — I knew I still felt twinges of pain.”
For Ehikian, the question of underreporting injuries is a matter of forcing oneself to think rationally despite the intense emotions involved in athletics. Though some athletes will always spend practice wincing in pain, players need to make realistic decisions based on personal understandings of how their bodies work and the opinions of expert training staffs.
“I honestly thought I would be okay,” Ehikian said. “It’s just a question of education.”
For some athletes, however, considerations of how to deal with injuries go beyond a simple matter of internal drive. In addition to a desire to continue playing the sport they love, athletes must also contend with notions of respect and team comaraderie, and an unspoken ethic of heroism that surrounds playing through pain.
Michael McDaniel ’06 is an offensive lineman for the football team who missed the past season because of a serious shoulder injury. Though McDaniel continued to attend practices, he said he felt his status among other players decreased immediately after his withdrawal from active participation .
“If I could misreport my injury right now so that I would be able to play, I would,” McDaniel said. “I feel like I got into this school because I play football and I think some other guys feel that way too. When people are hurt and don’t play, it’s almost like they are looked down on. It’s intangible, but it’s there.”
At times, McDaniel said, it can feel like there is a glorification of athletes who can withstand injuries and still play in the big game, despite the potential of increasing the severity of an injury.
“When you are hurt and playing through an injury, there is a general feeling that doing that makes you more of a man. A hero,” McDaniel said. “But sometimes, you really do have to just suck it up and play.”