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Kieran Tierney injury indicative of bigger football problem

The players need a break.

Luxembourg v Scotland - International Friendly Photo by Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Getty Images

The football calendar is congested in a normal year. Add to that this summer’s international competitions. And then you condense the league and continental schedule even more because of COVID-19. The players have played a lot of football in the last 12 months. Probably too much.

The result: they’re breaking down.

Kieran Tierney’s latest knock that kept him out against the Czech Republic is another in a long line of injuries across the sports world — from niggling muscle injuries to serious ones like torn ligaments — that might be attributable to fatigue and inadequate rest. Fortunately for Scotland and Arsenal, Tierney’s is not a serious one. He’s questionable for Scotland’s match against England today.

But that’s not the point. The players are overworked, and they’re getting hurt. And it’s not just in football.

LeBron James took to Twitter a few days ago to comment on the recent rash of more severe injuries during the NBA playoffs.

They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season. I knew exactly what would happen. I only wanted to protect the well being of the players which ultimately is the PRODUCT & BENEFIT of OUR GAME! These injuries isn’t just “PART OF THE GAME”. It’s the lack of PURE RIM REST rest before starting back up. 8, possibly 9 ALL-STARS has missed Playoff games(most in league history). This is the best time of the year for our league and fans but missing a ton of our fav players. It’s insane. If there’s one person that know about the body and how it works all year round it’s ME! I speak for the health of all our players and I hate to see this many injuries this time of the year. Sorry fans wish you guys were seeing all your fav guys right now.

There was a case study on the return to sport comparing injury rates that found increased risk of injury following the layoff. A 2017 literature review titled “Training Load and Fatigue Marker Associations with Injury and Illness” examined 68 studies and found that fatigue increases injury / illness risk.

Athletes are at an increased risk of injury/illness at key stages in their training and competition, including periods of training load intensification and periods of accumulated training loads.

It’s difficult for us, who aren’t team doctors / physios, to say whether any particular injury is fatigue-related or would have happened anyway. But it’s pretty clear that the players are at increased risk, and that’s a problem.

It’s nothing new. As we often do, we’re putting advertising money, TV deals, and our own entertainment ahead of player welfare. Player health and safety is much more a performative display than something the football world takes seriously.

Benjamin Pavard was knocked unconscious in France vs. Germany — he stayed on the pitch. The Danish players were told “you can play today or tomorrow” after watching their friend and captain Christian Eriksen nearly die on the field instead of being given the resources and time to process what they’d just witnessed.

It’s not a good look.

And while there is something to be said for allowing adults the agency to make decisions about their own bodies, health, and welfare, sometimes the right thing to do is to take the decision out of their hands. The Kieran Tierneys of the world are always going to want to play if they’ve got a shot at it.

I’ll stop short of saying we need to protect guys from themselves, but we do need a stronger voice in the room saying “hey, let’s think about whether this is the right / best / safest thing to do.” Whether that is UEFA, the federations, a player coalition, whatever, the first step towards meaningful change to protect players is to normalize considering the impact of decisions on player health and safety.

Realistically, there was no amount of discussion that would have seen Euro 2020 called off. Obviously, I wasn’t in the room where it happened, but I would bet dollars to donuts that cancellation was never an option. To be fair, all of these decisions are far more complicated and nuanced than our discourse makes them seem, but making the correct call starts with appropriate weighting of all the factors. Player health and safety is important, and we’ve been giving it short shrift far too long.