I hope you've read Dan LeBatard's outstanding column from Sunday in which former NFL star Jason Taylor detailed the incredible lengths that he went through to play games while injured. It made the rounds on Sunday for good reason, because it's one of the most powerful columns you'll ever read.
This is another textbook example of the Sport Ethic I've been writing about a lot lately. While it's not my primary research focus, I'm incredibly interested in how the sports media reinforces and perpetuates the Sport Ethic, especially the notion of athletes playing with injuries. Player safety is such a huge issue in sports now, especially football. And the biggest impediment to any real, lasting change in the realm of player safety - especially in football - is the culture that's reflected in the Sport Ethic. It's the culture that's reflected in Taylor's actions and comments.
As I said, one of my obsessions lately has been trying to learn and understand how the sports media perpetuates this culture. I don't believe the sports media creates it. I think it's a part of the larger sports culture. It's the language of the locker room. It's part of the game. But one of my working hypotheses is that the sports media does perpetuate this, primarily through the use of athletes as sources.
I've been doing a lot of reading in media sociology literature about sources as part of a research project. One of the core findings of the classic media sociology canon is that reporters rely on sources, mainly prominent ones, to do their jobs. You can argue that if there were no sources, there'd be no news. One of the main findings in this area of research is that journalists rely on well-placed, prominent sources. It's why official government sources are so valued in reporting. When an official speaks, it carries an "official" weight that speaking to a guy down the street doesn't.
In sports, athletes are our official sources (along with coaches and owners). Their words have weight. Their words have meaning. If they say something, it is so. As reporters, we interview athletes, treasure their insights, require their words to be a part of our stories. We want the athlete's perspective and we give it weight. We value what they say, take it as a certain kind of truth.
It's a part of almost every story about player safety. Think about it. You almost always see players quoted, either past or present ones, talking about the culture of the game. Players' words are taken as gospel. Playing hurt is a part of the game. They'd never think about coming out of a game injured, or asking out. That's not what an athlete does.
What's interesting is that, in my mind, these quotes are almost universally presented unchallenged. In fact, they are taken as the final word. Now, journalists have never been great about challenging the claims of their sources. Reporters have viewed their job as reporting what people say, not the truth of those statements. That's particularly true, I think, of sports reporters and athletes. Questioning their comments or thoughts opens sports reporters up to the charge of being a "jealous failed jock" or "someone who never played the game," which I think is pretty fear-inducing for a lot of sports reporters (and I should be upfront and say that, when I was a reporter, I was terrible at this. It's one of my biggest journalistic sins - never challenging quotes.)
So the sports coverage may reflect the Sport Ethic, particularly in terms of playing hurt. But I wonder what would happen if the quotes from players saying that they'd play through anything, play through any injury possible, were challenged. If those statements were followed up with facts about long-term injuries, the potential for CTE, the potentially damaging effects of the drugs players take to stay healthy. How would the discussion of player safety change if the sports media didn't just reflect the Sport Ethic but instead raised well-meaning, well-intentioned and well-informed questions? Would that even begin to change the culture of sports?