Kelechi Osemele was a veteran lineman for the hapless New York Jets. Until, that is, he opted for appropriate medical treatment for a significant shoulder injury rather than taking the painkiller recommended by team doctors. The Jets opted to toss him aside like bruised lettuce.
In the macho world of sports, the mantra for injured players, which is every player, is “suck it up.” Male and female athletes know that coaches forget players who are not on the field on game day. Starting with the bumps and bruises of youth leagues, they learn early to play through the pain.
According to a story in The New York Times, Osemele, injured sometime in the past year, had been taking a painkiller normally recommended for no more than a five-day course. The team wanted him to add cortisone shots, with the potential to further weaken his cartilage.
Friday, instead of submitting to more pain and injury by playing out the season, Osemele had the shoulder surgery recommended by his own physician. On Saturday, the Jets released him, the football euphemism for being fired without severance pay.
National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball players who have to sit out games while they heal do not lose their livelihood at the whim of the team. Football players are more like freelancers. Most only get paid if they can and do play, or if the team decides to keep them around if they don’t. Team doctors, paid by the teams, have decidedly conflicting loyalties.
Fine print favored by the owners and unstoppable by a weak players’ union allows a contract to be canceled at the team’s discretion with little or no protection for the players. Osemele is only the most recent and perhaps most visible example.
The NFL is a lucrative and highly protected monopoly. It should not be allowed to ignore federal and state laws that protect other employees who are hurt on the job. All players should be given guarantees that reflect the dangerous nature of the sport.
Fans, players and parents have pressured the NFL to begin to reduce concussions. They should exert similar pressure to ensure athletes are treated fairly.
Football players should not be treated like empty beer cans, crushed then tossed away.