In March of this year, Vancouver Canuck’s forward Manny Malhotra had a puck deflect into his eye, which led to a number of career threatening surgeries. The prediction was that Malhotra’s 2010-2011 season was finished and he would be lucky to ever regain normal vision. Fast-forward to the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals and Malhotra made a superhero like appearance and performed pretty well in the six games that he played. Today, Malhotra is still in “recovery mode” and Canucks fans anxiously wait to see the Manny of old on the ice.
Upon Malhotra’s return to play what struck me was all the talk regarding the fabulous work of his surgeons, which brings me to my topic of discussion – the politics of injury. A few months back I got into a heated blog debate over the mythical lack of politics with regard to sports injuries. A blogger made the statement that ACL injuries are in no way political, to which I replied that all injuries are political and I will use Malhotra’s eye injury as my example here to explain.
Picture this, a young man (let’s call him Fred) in his thirties is playing beer league hockey at the local rink. He chooses not to wear a visor or a cage. During the last period, Fred is screening the opposing team’s goalie and his defenceman takes a shot from the point. The puck stays low until it deflects off an opponent’s stick and directly into Fred’s eye. Blood is everywhere. The paramedics arrive and rush him to the hospital. Fred also happens to be a construction worker and a single father of three children. Fred lives in the United States and has no medical coverage. Due to financial constraints, Fred is unable to pay for the surgeries necessary to restore his vision. After Fred is released from the hospital, he is unable to perform his previous work duties due to his lingering vision complications and loses his job.
Malhotra received the finest medical attention because he is fortunate enough to be a professional athlete and because it happened to be playoff season in the Mecca of hockey nations. Therefore, not only did he receive the best medical treatment money could buy but he also received it as quickly as humanly possible because, let’s face it, what is more important than the playoffs? Fred, who hypothetically sustained the exact same injury in the same circumstances, received minimal treatment because he, unfortunately, is not a professional athlete and lives in a country that does not provide universal medical care. Rationally, in my mind (and I’m sure there are plenty out there who will disagree with me), Fred should receive the best medical care because he is responsible for the livelihood of his entire family and without his job there is no safety net. Malhotra, a veteran professional hockey player, has amassed a few million dollars over his career and can financially afford to go without a pay cheque for a while. He also has the social capital to parlay a truncated career into a new career relatively easily. Would it have been extremely unfortunate to lose Malhotra as a hockey player and have his career ended by an unlucky deflection and lack of visor? Of course. Now, generally I avoid ranking suffering but in this case on one hand a whole family suffers because the politics of class and geography amalgamate to create oppression, and on the other a family is allowed to continue life as it was before because of class and social status.
Debt from medical bills is the number one reason for bankruptcy in the United States. As one Business Week article puts it, “Unless you are Warren Buffett, your family is just one serious illness away from bankruptcy.” What middle-class family could afford the four surgeries that Malhotra received if their child or teenager had received the same injury? Injury throws meritocracy right out the window because regardless of your talent, dedication or work ethic one’s class determines if an injury is merely a set back or the card that brings down the whole house.
Who receives treatment for injuries? What kind of treatment is provided? How quickly is treatment received? Do we focus on treatment or prevention? Do we choose one type of medication over another? What kind of rehabilitation is provided? How quickly is someone progressed through rehab? These are all political factors that contribute to how injuries occur, how they are experienced, how they are treated and how they are talked about. The fact that Malhotra is still in “recovery mode” six months after the accident means that he was nowhere close to being healed in June when he returned to play. This decision by Malhotra, his doctor’s and the Canuck’s coaching staff was a political statement, although not necessarily intended that way, that reproduces the athletic norm that athletes play through pain. That athletes willingly sacrifice their body for their sport and their team. That athletes will always choose performance over wellness. And then we wonder why rates of injury among youth athletes (e.g. shoulders and elbows for baseball players, ACL tears for soccer players, concussions for hockey players) has been climbing in recent years?
To conclude, I would like to highlight the fact that Malhotra’s accident could have been a non-incident had he been wearing a visor or a cage – end of discussion. However, the fact that he was not, and the fact that many players do not wear visors and none wear cages unless they are coming back from injury (which in itself signals that only the weak wear cages/full shields), is in itself a political statement. That statement being – I am a man and ‘real men’, evidently, don’t protect their faces. Sure scars can be cool, but not being able to see and glass eyes are not really that cool. Is it worth ending a career early when it is possible today to make sure that no hockey player ever suffers from an eye injury again? I don’t care how good of an athlete you think you are or how strong you think you are but when it’s puck versus eye, the puck wins every time. I have received a fair number of sticks and pucks into my face and I can tell you proudly that my cage is my favourite piece of protective gear. Perhaps, if one’s manhood existed on the face then more men would wear cages because I have never heard any guy, Don Cherry included, bragging about not wearing a cup.