The Danger of Playing Through Injuries in the NBA and How It Contributes to Hegemonic Masculinity

In the midst of the first round of the NBA Playoffs, narratives and asterisks get slapped and labelled on a multitude of teams. Many predictions ablaze, emotions run high, and the reactions go wild. It’s an exciting time, really. But as the games start to roll along, the grittiness of it all reveals how injuries become a problem. They can change the direction of a series, especially if your star player is affected. It’s out of our control, but there seems to be a common trend of “playing through it”, just to make sure teams keep winning. Why do players feel like they need to power through an injury? Why is it that we call them “soft” when they go through load management? Believe it or not, all of this can be linked to the hegemonic ideals of masculinity.

“Hegemonic masculinity thus symbolizes and enacts power over other masculine identities as well as over women. It constitutes the most socially valued form of masculinity to which individual men can aspire, notwithstanding that it does not necessarily reflect the lived identities of many, or indeed of any, individual men.”

Chris McVittie, … Karen Goodall, in The Psychology of Gender and Health, 2017

So what does this actually mean? Well, language plays a big role in the heteronormative ideologies that are normalized throughout our entire lives. Phrases like “man up” or even passing off homophobic slurs as “jokes” are things that boys (especially those in sports) hear from the moment they step out onto the court. With a dash of a lack of accountability and a bit of “boys will be boys” sprinkled on top, you create a recipe for fragile masculinity that carries on through adolescence and eventually, adulthood.

Now, I’m not trying to be overly harsh, but I am critical. There are multiple studies being done on both toxic masculinity as well as hegemonic masculinity, and the traditional male model always seems to include: “being strong physically, driven to succeed, and finding ways to achieve goals despite obstacles” (Neibergall & Sánchez, 2020). All three of these criteria bring me to the NBA.

The first incident that made me start to ponder this was Toronto Raptors PF Pascal Siakam playing through “flu-like symptoms” against the Charlotte Hornets at the end of February. The fans weren’t even made aware of this until after the game, as if the Raptors felt the need to justify being blown out by the Hornets in a 125-93 loss. I remember finding out and thinking, why did he even play? Especially since this was a team that had been hit by COVID hard previously, sitting out one of your star players with flu-like symptoms probably would have been a good idea.

If you’re on Twitter, you’ll know that the discourse around Pascal Siakam can be extremely tiring and problematic at times. The criticism he faces is unfair and has reached points in the past where people have very clearly crossed the line. It’s fair to assume that if Siakam had taken that night off, comments like “he’s soft” or “he’s not a good leader” would have come into play. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this.

via Twitter

There’s a lot to unpack here. It’s also a good place to transition to the purpose of this piece. Currently, the Toronto Raptors are in a first-round battle against the Philadelphia 76ers. After going down 3-0, the Raptors have crawled their way back to 3-2, hoping to make it 3-3 and force a game seven Thursday night. During the series, Embiid has had his thumb/hand wrapped in tape, looking considerably in pain after aggravating whatever injury he appeared to have following a statement dunk during one of the earlier games of the series. Embiid then said that if an MRI reveals that he needs surgery on his thumb, he will wait until the playoffs are over before doing so. Otherwise known as, “playing through it.” Well, lo and behold, that is exactly what happened:

via Twitter/wojespn

Now let’s go back to those fan tweets from before. Tweet #1 is professing their love and respect for Embiid playing through a torn ligament, saying that Embiid “gets a pass from me” (whatever that means). It would not have been outrageous if the 76ers (or Embiid for that matter) had decided to take care of the injury because long-term health is what is most important here. Additionally, Embiid has clearly struggled since aggravating the injury. His aggressiveness has tapered off a bit with fewer free throws and field goals made and attempted. Embiid also hasn’t hit a three since his game-winner in game three, with his shooting hand hurt. Toronto has won the last two and Philly is getting a big shake in confidence here. Even if they do progress to the next round, how much longer can Embiid keep playing while he is this uncomfortable?

Why does he feel the need to have to “power through it?” Sure, we can understand the history behind the “failed process” and the window of opportunity just closing faster and faster for the 76ers, but we can also understand that Embiid may feel like he needs to “power through it” or “play through it” in order to prove something. His masculinity, perhaps?

This isn’t a piece to slander Embiid. Rather, it is to make us aware of why NBA players feel the need to play through injuries and how hegemonic masculinity has been enforced in their lives since they started playing sports. Language is deliberate and powerful, and if we want to start shifting the ideologies that men need to be strong and dominant even when they feel most vulnerable, then we need to start with changing the language that we use.

If these two cases weren’t enough to prove it, just look at the entire discourse around Ben Simmons. The speculation around whether he is lying about his mental health has been unnecessary, and this piece perfectly outlines why. Not to mention that Simmons had an epidural for his back injury and yet was still being rushed back to the court and ridiculed when he wasn’t ready. Look at the Kawhi Leonard situation that occurred in San Antonio, where he ended up demanding a trade because the situation surrounding his injury wasn’t being respected. We need to stop forcing players to “power through” and realize the harm in that rhetoric.

For a league that likes to say it’s “bigger than basketball,” it (and WE) need to start acting like it.

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