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Adam Silver is right: Resting players is the most critical issue in the NBA

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But not for the reasons he thinks. The 82-game season jeopardizes the health of the league’s players.

NBA: Playoffs-Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors
A concussed Klay Thompson.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Silver and Roger Goodell walk into a bar ...

Perhaps Lucifer joins them for whiskey shots.

They’re drinking top-shelf and run up a sizeable tab. “It’s on me,” Silver says, reaching for his black card. Goodell rises to leave. He thanks Silver for the drinks and, just before leaving, slips a piece of paper discreetly into his buddy’s pocket.

Later, at home alone, Silver slides the page out of his pocket with a gleam in his eyes. He looks down, grins widely. It is just what he had hoped to receive.

The page is titled:

Faux Commitment to Player Health Rules

Roger Goodell’s commitment to the brain health of NFL players epitomizes smoke-and-mirrors deception. Science and medicine make clear that if the NFL really felt a commitment to players’ health — and to preventing long-term, permanent brain injury — each team would have a roster of approximately 300 men because a severe, wobbling-on-your-feet concussion does not heal in seven days, just in time for the next given Sunday.

In the NBA, Silver is doing the same thing, but perhaps with different colors of smoke and different sizes of mirrors. As awareness of the lasting impact of concussions on NFL players became apparent following the suicide deaths of former football players, Silver expressed a commitment to the health of NBA basketball players by instituting a concussion protocol. This undoubtedly is a good thing for every player in the league. However, it is a tone-deaf response to the overall issue of NBA player health because concussions are not the biggest health risk to NBA players the way they are for NFL players. The biggest threat to NBA player safety is the 82-game season and the rigorous travel demands that go along with it.

Over the past few years, Silver has made slight changes to the scheduling to end the four games in five nights debacle, and to reduce the number of back-to-back games. Although an improvement, these changes did not go far enough. So coaches such as the Spurs’ Greg Popovich and the Warriors’ Steve Kerr got clever and began resting players for legitimate reasons: 1) player health and injury prevention; and 2) the ability for players to endure the longevity of the season and the grind of the horrendous scheduling. Silver’s response was to double down on his dogged commitment to end the practice of resting players. “There is no more important issue in the league right now,” he said. “It goes to the heart of what we do and the core of competition.”

Silver’s premise for taking this position is lack of evidence that an 82-game season and the insane travel demands that go along with it increase risk of player injury, stating:

“I have delved into this issue fairly intensively in the last month. The science is much less clear than I thought it would be, and there are different philosophies from different organizations. I don’t think we are at the point at all where we can see this is a clear science that if a player plays 25 games and rests for three days, that decreases the likelihood of an injury by 26 percent. Sometimes there is a sense that maybe the science is at that point. It’s not, as far as we know.”

Okay, hold up a second.

Science does not definitively state that if an NFL player gets cracked on the noggin and concussed X number of times during his career that his chances of ending up with CTE, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or ALS increase by Y number of percentage points. But the medical community has asserted that any player who has had three or more concussions is at a higher risk for developing lasting brain disease. Additionally, the brains of deceased former players have tested positive for CTE enough times to draw the simple conclusion that football players have an increased chance of lasting brain damage caused by the repeated blows to the head that happen in football.

Put another way, if I kick my bare foot into a brick wall, chances are high that I will break toes or other bones in my foot. I don’t need to know the science behind the degree to which my chances of breaking a bone increase based on the force with which I kick the wall, or the number of times I kick it. I only need to know that if I keep doing it, I’m putting myself at risk for serious injury, so — duh — I stop kicking the wall.

Similarly, scientific evidence about the rates with which injury may occur to NBA players is not needed to determine that an 82-game season involving thousands of miles traveled and back-to-back games is harder on the body than fewer games, fewer miles, and zero back-to-backs. For Silver to hide behind a demand for scientific evidence that is potentially impossible to obtain demonstrates one thing, and one thing only: a commitment to greed.

No, there may not be a “clear science” to the degree Silver wants, but enough evidence is out there to show that extensive travel fatigue, especially across time zones, presents significant challenges to the functioning of the human body. In “The anatomy of a scheduled loss,” Golden State of Mind’s Jason Lee cited a Stanford study focused solely on basketball players that produced eye-opening evidence about the ill effects of extensive travel and bad sleep.

In March, the Warriors experienced the Road Trip from Hell, which Lee described this way:

If you do the math on this trip it sounds like a horrible version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: Over 9,500 miles traveled, 10 days, eight games total, seven away, six time zone changes, two sets of back-to-backs — sing with me now — and a tragic MCL sprain.

No, we may not be able to prove that Kevin Durant’s knee injury would not have happened if the team had traveled fewer miles and played fewer games, in fewer times zones, during that stretch. But we do know fatigue slows reaction time, which makes otherwise avoidable accidents unavoidable.

Every odd injury I have ever had occurred when I was exhausted and basically asleep on my feet. Had I been rested and alert, perhaps I would not have knocked the floor lamp over that gave me a concussion, or slammed my finger in the car door requiring an Urgent Care nurse to saw off the ring that had been smashed flat into my finger, or suffered a partially dislocated ankle when I slipped on wet stairs at my apartment building.

Plus, we only need to look to the transportation industry that has strict rules about the number of hours a pilot or long-haul trucker can operate a plane or truck, respectively, without breaks for rest. Violation of these safety regulations can have tragic consequences.

Asleep on his feet and experiencing a delayed reaction time, a player will be unable to get out of the way of a potential injury-causing collision.

Myopic, misguided media

One of the more frustrating aspects of this story is the one-note response by the majority of mainstream sports media. Every talking head with a microphone is condemning players for their coach’s decision to rest them. By hammering home the singular point, this interesting cast of characters — from Mark Jackson and Stan Van Gundy, to Jason Whitlock and Steven A. Smith — is pitting fans against players.

Thankfully, SB Nation had the wherewithal to break ranks from those talking the loudest to offer a nuanced view of the real reason resting players is a critical issue:

Clearly, shortening the season is the only real solution. With a shorter season and less travel comes a higher quality of play, reduction in injury risk, and reduced potential for fan disappointment, since this is what Silver and the media talking heads claim this is about.

Sour grapes: A tale of player-fan relations

The last two NBA Finals — with the Warriors winning in 2015 and the Cavaliers winning in 2016 — were significantly impacted by player injury. So, Adam Silver & Co. need to decide which type of disappointment is more acceptable — fans missing their favorite player in one game, or the player going down to injury and missing the widely-televised and much-hyped playoffs.

Silver’s determination to spin this into a coach/player problem rather than a league problem — supposedly in the interest of the fans — is toxic. Add in the media maelstrom whipping things up and we are left with bitter relations between fans and players. As it is, many fans barely see players as human, somehow associating their wealth, physical fitness and fame with superhuman capabilities.

Earlier this season, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard dealt with such a situation when a young fan criticized him for sitting out a game due to injury:

Damian Lillard, via Twitter.

Naturally, Dame wasn’t having it, and clapped back:

Damian Lillard, via Twitter.

And then all of Damian Lillard Twitter ate the boy for breakfast — and rightfully so:

Damian Lillard, via Twitter.

So, this is what Adam Silver wants?

The players are damned if they sit to prevent injury, but they also are damned if they play hurt, worsen an injury, and have to sit anyway.

Plus, despite advancements in sports medicine, issues of career longevity and the potential for career-ending injury also need to be included in the discussion. Players are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before, which increases injury potential, and with more teams in the league than in days of old, more travel is required — requiring that players miss games due to injury, or an attempt to prevent injury. This is an NBA-created lose-lose situation for players, coaches and fans. It can only be ameliorated by shortening the season.

What does the rest of the GSoM crew think?

During informal discussions while writing this piece, some of the writers at Golden State of Mind shared some insightful views on the problem and proposed solutions. Here’s what they had to say:

Nate P. (on the long season): I’m not clear why Silver is putting this on teams when it’s so clear that they just need to add an extra parameter or two to their scheduling algorithm ... I am all for a European soccer structure, from regular season titles to some kind of round robin to replace these early- to mid-April games.

(on the myopic media): I particularly enjoyed how Mark Jackson has seemingly forgotten about all he did to tank in 2012 ... for a pick that ended up being Harrison Barnes. Guess that’s better than resting players who will end up playing a quarter season more games in the playoffs [thinking emoji].

Apricot (on American sports’ culture overall): This whole thing exposes a big defect in American sports culture: the RINGZ ARE ALL. It doesn’t have to be that way ... In European soccer, they count regular season titles as important accomplishments too. Having said that, the fix is straightforward: don’t schedule TV games on road back-to-backs ... I think it’s the difference between an upper-class game of gentlemen vs. American ideology of meritocracy and everyone is equal under the rules and exactly the rules. In this culture, sports are about figuring out exactly and scientifically who is the BEST. We hate ties, we can’t take multiple achievements in a year, we need ONE MVP, and it becomes a religious belief.

Mike Brady (on the culture clash, from a Scottish perspective): When I first started getting into the NBA as a kid I found it weird that division titles and conference titles weren't really counted as an accomplishment by a lot of American fans. It was very foreign to me. A whole season just to decide seeding for the “real” season. Took me years to accept it ... [But], FWIW, I love the American obsession with “no tied games.” I can’t stand watching a great game for it just to end in a tie. Don’t know why people bother.

Tell us what you think!


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