Publish date:

How NFL teams manipulate injured players, the system for financial gain

As injuries mount in the preseason and Week 1, a former NFL player reflects on how teams push players back onto the field.

“Know the difference between being hurt, and being injured.”

As Week 1 of the NFL season has concluded with its regular allotment of injuries, it made me once again think of that saying. I heard it all the time while in the NFL. If you’re not on the field, the team has no use for you, and it’s what drives athletes to push their bodies far past the breaking point—especially during the preseason, when competition for a roster spot is fierce.

The NFL takes advantage of that in ways most people don’t know.

See, there’s a thing in the NFL called an “injury settlement,” whereby if a player gets injured during the preseason, and the team wants to get rid of that player, they have to cover his medical costs and salary for the weeks he’s predicted to be injured in a one-time payout. This amount can be in the thousands, if not the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and, well, NFL teams don’t like parting with their money.

Complete coverage of Week 1 action around the NFL

So what happens when a player gets injured in the preseason, especially if he’s just there to be a training camp body, is the coaching staff starts leaning on him. They know he isn’t going to make the team, but they tell him he has a chance. They tell him that he needs to get out on the field, needs to put the pain aside, so he can give himself the best odds of succeeding. They tell him that it’s vitally important to suit up, since they only have a limited amount of reps to judge players on, and no one makes the team from the training room.

Then they have that player sign an innocuous looking piece of paper, generally in the training room, that declares the player agrees he is fit to play in an NFL football game, and releases the team from all liability.

The NFL remains addictive in America, but it's losing ground internationally

The player is excited! The coaches have been paying extra close attention to him; surely this means he’s going to make it. They wouldn’t do that for just anyone. No, the coaches must really want to see what he can do under the lights, what astounding feats he’ll perform with all eyes on him. He dresses for that fourth preseason game, putting on his uniform reverently, knowing in his heart that he’s finally getting his chance, he’s finally moving on up, and he tries to ignore the broken parts of his body that stubbornly refuse to shut up. He forces enthusiasm until it becomes real, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

“I’ll be fine when the adrenaline kicks in. I can feel my muscles loosening from the special tape job they gave me. Get hype, get hype!”

Then the team puts the player out for one kickoff return at the end of the game, one where the ball is going out the back of the end zone anyway, and they cut him the next day.

Image placeholder title

I saw one guy try to beat the system. He knew he wasn’t going to make the team, and when they put him on his kickoff return in the fourth preseason game, he ran down, got blocked, and collapsed to the turf. Watching the replay, you could tell he was faking it, but you know what? Good for him. He at least understood what was going on, and wanted to try to claw some of that money back.

Unfortunately, he was cunning but not smart, and didn’t realize the team would hire a private investigator to follow him around in order to substantiate his claims. He got caught taking his brace off after leaving the facility, bowling when he shouldn’t have been, and that was the end of that. No settlement.

KING: After Week 1, my top 15 teams | VRENTAS: Mariota's debut a long time coming

That’s how much the NFL cares about money versus the care of the bodies in their employ. Teams will hire a private investigator to trail a player they suspect is cheating them, but won’t hesitate for an instant to push that same player onto the field when he should be getting treatment. Coaches sell the dream of a lifetime to naive young men conditioned to trust them, knowing all the while it’s a cynical lie to check off the appropriate box in the paperwork.

“You can’t make the team in the cold tub.”

SI Recommends

“If you want to play, you need to be on the field.”

“Know the difference between being hurt and being injured.”

Image placeholder title

Everyone plays hurt. Jammed fingers, sore muscles, bumps and bruises and cuts and scrapes are simply things that happen every time you step on the field. Your brain informs you that parts of your body are trying to heal themselves, and ... could you please stop all this annoying running around and smashing into things while that’s going on, pretty please? But you don’t have time to listen to your brain, because there’s a game to win, a job to keep, so you push it to the back of your mind and ignore it. Playing hurt is painful, but it becomes a familiar pain, almost a friend. Eventually, you’re not surprised by it at all, merely resigned to it crashing on your couch when you were hoping to enjoy a quiet weekend alone.

A lot of guys play injured. Playing injured is when there’s a functionally mechanical problem with your body. Maybe your hamstring is strained so your leg can’t extend as far as you need it to; maybe your back seized up to where bending down sounds like something that happens only to other people; maybe your ACL is torn and your knee buckles whenever you try to push or cut a certain way. Regardless of what the specific injury is, you do your best to pretend it’s not there. If that means a shot of Toradol, or an epidural, or a brace, you take what solace you can, but it’s not much, not really, because your body has had a lifetime of practice moving a certain way, and now it can’t. Your brain isn’t saying, “You shouldn’t do this;” it’s your body saying, “You can’t do this,” and there’s no argument to be had. Physics always wins.

I’ve played injured, and it is always a measure of last resort. You play injured when you know they’re looking to replace you, because they have no time to wait for you to heal. It is the cold calculus of businessmen, ones whose bodies are safe in their luxury boxes, and your health does not matter to them as much as their product.

Image placeholder title

Week 1 NFL Hangover: Half of all NFL fans should be in PANIC mode today

“Know the difference between being hurt, and being injured.”

As a player, you do know that difference. You’re intimately familiar with your pain, but you’ve also seen the heartless logic behind NFL rosters. You know there’s room for only 53 on the active squad, and only so many at your position. You know that cuts will happen after that fourth preseason game, and so you’ll cling to any hope that lets you believe you’ll be one of those 53 bodies.

That’s what the NFL uses, to drive injured players into ugly decisions.

I’ve seen it happen, year after year after year: NFL coaches, mentors to those underneath them, arbiters of a player’s fate, pushing dysfunctional bodies into a situation they shouldn’t be in, simply to save a billionaire some money. I saw it happen to a rookie with a torn hip flexor, a third-year special-teamer with an injured shoulder, and a seasoned veteran with bad knees. It happens to young and old alike, men whose bodies need treatment, need healing, but because the dream is so evocative, and the lies so seducing, they sign the paper and away they go.

Image placeholder title

If there’s anything I’ve learned in my time in the NFL, it’s that there is a difference between being hurt and being injured, but it’s the player who needs to be the judge of that. Not the coaches. Not the team trainers. Not the front office executives. The player, and the truly independent medical professional he consults.

So, if by chance you ever find yourself in the NFL during the preseason, fighting for a roster spot, and you happen to get injured, trust yourself, and trust what your body is telling you. Do not sign that paper. Do not run down on that meaningless kickoff. Do not believe the lies they want to sell you, because in the end, it’s not your health they’re worried about, it’s their money.

Know the difference between being hurt and being injured.