Football always has been and always will be a Bassanioan bargain between the league and its players, wherein millions of dollars are exchanged for enduring gruesome injury and pain. But an ugly scandal in Florham Park shines a harsh light on how little teams respect the agony that their players go through and the absurd lengths they will go to coerce them into destroying themselves.
The New York Jets’ left guard Kelechi Osemele tore his labrum right off the bone on September 22nd. In excruciating pain, he quite reasonably told the team that he wasn’t going to be able to practice or play through it and that he needed surgery, as one would expect when you literally tear off the muscle that keeps the ball of your shoulder joint in place.
Quite unreasonably, the freefalling Jets did everything in their power to make sure that he didn’t get the surgery. In a move straight from a health insurer’s playbook, they attempted to label the injury a “pre-existing condition” and told him to delay surgery until the offseason, when they could cut him.
“It’s been killing me,” Osemele told reporters. “The conflict is that the team does not think that I’m in pain. It’s ethically and morally wrong…I’m 30 years old. Let’s be realistic about this. I’m in a lot of pain. My tolerance isn’t probably the same as it used to be… But I can’t go. I just can’t go. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in this situation. I can lift my arm. It just hurts.”
None of that seemed to matter to the Gang Green front office, which was convinced that he should just get jacked up on painkillers and play anyway.
Instead of showing the slightest shred of empathy for a man who, let’s remember, has a muscle torn off of his bone, the Jets tried to bully him into playing by fining him over half a million dollars for “conduct detrimental to the team” for each week he didn’t practice.
They even appeared to try to sabotage his efforts to get medical opinions from doctors outside the team, “accidentally” sending blank MRIs to his doctors and dragging out the process.
Osemele finally went and got the surgery that everyone except the team agreed that he needed without approval from the team, for which he was promptly released.
“A lot of guys play through injuries and you need that [the painkiller Toradol] to play thru an injury. But once it stops working and it doesn’t do anything for you anymore, then you’re at a point where it’s like, ‘Now what do I do?’ Do I take Vicodin? Where is the line? How much should a player play through pain? What is the limit? Is there a limit? Am I supposed to take Toradol every day? Does my health not matter?” asked Osemele.
Those are all questions that players are not supposed to ask. They are expected to suffer in silence and dedicate their entire being to the Sisyphean task of trying to keep the Patriots from winning the Super Bowl again and keep the money pouring into team coffers from the hundreds of millions of fans who perpetually delude themselves into thinking this is their year.
The very fact that he’s asking those questions explains why the Jets are so viciously trying to put Osemele in his place and force him to bow to their will. His attempt to assert agency over his own health care decisions has clearly been seen as an existential threat to the team’s control over their players.
In a league where player contract holdouts, trade demands and general expressions of defiance are occurring with increasing frequency, teams are clearly feeling the pressure to keep their young black players in line and make sure they know who calls the shots on their careers and their own bodies.
The vindictive contempt with which the Jets have treated the Osemele situation echoes the irrational fury and scorn with which certain football fans responded to the football players who chose to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and systemic racism.
It’s another sharp reminder that though we love the game of football, by and large, the rich white men who run these teams see their mostly black players as little more than numbers on a depth chart and would rather trash their own reputation and ruin their own chances at league success than tolerate the slightest sign of dissent or independence from the men they draft and trade like chattel.
The players’ collective bargaining agreement with the NFL expires in 2020 and judging from this kind of behavior from the Jets, can’t come soon enough. The questions that Osemele asked deserve to be answered. It’s far past time that the men who tear themselves apart and sacrifice their futures for our entertainment had more of a say in their own health.
Colin Taylor is the editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.