Current NFL Safeguards Won’t Help Jason Witten’s Spleen

The Program in Sports and Society at NYU September 3, 2012 0


In the first game of the NFL season last Wednesday night, Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten had two catches for 10 yards in his team’s unexpected win over the New York Giants. The question that few seem to want to ask is, in a league that says it is obsessed with player safety, what was Witten doing on the field at all?

Witten’s evening was one of the least-productive performances he has had in a career that has included playing in 140 straight games. But it was remarkable that he even set foot on the field. Witten was still recovering from a lacerated spleen suffered in a preseason game three weeks prior. He took a hit from a linebacker and sustained the injury, which his coach immediately termed “very serious.”

According to published reports, it was a small laceration that caused bleeding in—but not a rupture of—a major organ, the bag-like spleen. Team physicians recommended that Witten rest for most of the following week and then gradually increase the frequency, intensity, and time of his workouts. By this week, he had participated in three practices. And he seemed to be in good enough shape to travel to New York after undergoing a repeat examination of his spleen. Still, he was listed in the pregame injury report as doubtful hours before kickoff.

We don’t know what about Witten’s condition changed enough that his status went from doubtful to activeso quickly. But we do know that he was cleared to play by a doctor in New York. We also know that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters before the game, “We just got our information together and it was good and that’s how he’s out there, but the detail of timing and anything like that we’re not going to get into.”

Doctors who work for sports teams at the pro level face tough challenges. They need to keep the health of every athlete central. But they are not immune to the wishes of coaches, owners, and fans to see starters and stars play. They are also aware that too much caution might well put them out of a job the next year.

A seven-time All-Pro who has surely played through a huge number of painful injuries, Witten has proven himself resilient. He has missed only one game in his career—in 2003, due to a broken jaw. He is as tough as they come. His teammates admire him for his ruggedness.

After the game, Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee spoke to Witten’s effort, calling him an “ultimate warrior,” “ultimate teammate,” “ultimate tight end,” and “ultimate leader.” Quarterback Tony Romo said he is “the best teammate.” Linebacker DeMarcus Ware talked about “going out there and being a gladiator and playing for the guy that’s beside you.” Team owner Jerry Jones referred to Witten’s determination as “inspirational.” The Dallas fans at the game were in a frenzy when Witten took the field.

With attributions like these being tossed around, could an athlete like Witten even think about not playing? It is exactly the kind of language that can lead someone to offer to sign a medical waiver relieving the team and its doctors of any liability if they would let him take the field. Witten reportedly did.

It may be that Witten is a beneficiary of ideal timing, that his injury healed just enough at just the right time to let him get out there on opening day. But that medical waiver offer, if true, is worrisome. Should Witten or any other athlete be required to undergo an exam with the results made public before taking the field?

Remember that what the pros do in terms of playing hurt influences what college, high school, and even peewee athletes do. Plus, the history of dealing with concussions in the NFL should at least have given us pause about Witten’s situation. Society can suffer because of the potential of copycats.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions on abortion, right to die, and so on have made it clear that we each have the right of self-determination and autonomy over our bodies. But there are limits—think wearing seat belts and helmets, and driving drunk or while talking on a cellphone. Also, athletes have the same right to privacy in health care enjoyed by anyone else. Yet, wanting to play hurt in a league that values and sells a gladiator image may lead to errors on the wrong side of safety.

For Jason Witten, the game seems worth the gamble. But even though it is his life on the line, should the NFL demand more safeguards before letting men like Witten play? In a business where tough guys are heros, maybe the league needs to do more to ensure that their players are around to play future games and to enjoy their retirement.

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