On January 15th, in a 3rd round FA replay match between the Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United, United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær sent 22- year-old forward Marcus Rashford in as substitute at the half. Rashford lasted only 15 minutes, as his pre-existing back stress fracture was compounded by picking up a second stress fracture. Ole said that the substitution “backfired” and when asked if he knew Rashford had a prior injury, changed his story more than once. Eventually, the United boss did admit his awareness of Rashford’s pre-existing injury, “He has struggled a little bit with his back before and got another knock and I think he got a knock to his knee too. He is a quick healer and he’ll play through some pain – he’s capable if it’s not a bad injury.” But it was a bad injury. Mere days before the FA match, reports claim that Rashford could hardly sit without pain. The New York Times’ Henry Winter attributed bringing in Rashford to mismanagement. As a star player on a notably weak United side, there’s serious pressure on Rashford to help carry his club this season, while Ole is desperately trying to prove he’s fit as a manager. Now, Rashford might miss the rest of the Premier League season and Europa League, should they begin again.
Rashford’s case is certainly not the only one to emerge from top-flight modern football, where footballers sometimes choose or are forced to risk their careers, and potentially their health, by playing while injured. Neither medical teams nor footballers are clueless, and there are, in fact, medicine-supported ways to play sports and generally exercise without compromising injury healing. You’d be surprised at how many footballers are masking their pain while going full-90 in a regular league match. Yet, a 2018 i News in-depth study showed how many managers ignore the advice of medical teams, pressuring players, especially youth players, into working through painful injuries. As one can see, this is more complicated than just uncaring managers or money-driven clubs; there’s cultural and structural issues at hand that result in footballers playing while injured. When footballers play while injured, they also play with ideas of internalized ableism, dehumanizing footballers into play objects, and performing masculinity. As such, I ask what ideas are promoted about bodies and human worth when a footballer elects or is forced to play while injured?
To answer these questions, we should first consider the role of the body in football. The same 2018 study showed how top footballers regularly play with broken bones, often reliant on painkillers to the point of developing an addiction. But, is this really shocking? Football is a hard game and the toll it takes on ones body is part of the job. Without proper health, they cannot play and they cannot go to work, so to speak.
More than just a job, though, football is what they love. Sometimes, you love something more than yourself, or even more so, you believe in something more than yourself. So, you put your body on the line. This is part of being human. Even while writing this article, my own chronic pain condition has been flaring up. I should have stopped. My joints are on fire, so I take another drugstore anti-inflammatory drug and keep typing. Writing worsens my condition but not writing would worsen my life. I am a writer. They are footballers. These are identities as well as careers. The necessary balance is of one between football as a career and an identity, because being pressured into how you use your body, such as developing a painkiller addiction, can compromise both in potentially irreversible ways.
Footballers’ bodies are sometimes treated more like a club’s assets than an individual’s living, breathing flesh and bone. If Rashford did complain of back pain and have trouble sitting mere days before the FA match, then why wasn’t he believed, or worse, why was a game put before his health? We could ask the same question of then-England national team manager Roy Hodgson, who denied Daniel Sturridge’s recovery training-day request. Sturridge suffered a thigh injury later that same day, taking him off the pitch for weeks. The aim here is to ensure that we don’t view footballers as unbreakable objects and that they maintain control over how they use their bodies.
Apart from mismanagement, a footballer may elect, even beg, to play while injured for a variety of reasons, such as wanting to support their team, a belief that the game matters more than themselves, feelings of being invincible, fear of seeming weak, and many more. If a player knows the risks, ultimately it’s their choice. The risks, however, can be dire, including acquiring new injuries or worsening a pre-existing injury, both of which can disrupt or end their career.
Within these reasons, we should account for the powerful psychologies of masculinity and ableism, which are visible in popular media coverage of footballers playing while injured that celebrates their “warrior spirit” and “hardness.” A recent article from Planet Football exemplifies this trend,
“Footballers are often accused of being soft… In an era where footballers are often accused of rolling around when no injury has been sustained, it is nice to remember there are also times when they show the kind of warrior spirit we all love to see as fans.”
The celebration of these players as “brave” and “hard” speaks to a particular vein of toxic masculinity. Injuries pose a challenge to footballers: Are you “man enough” to let it stop you? Are you gonna be a “warrior” or a “softie”? Are you gonna let your entire team down because of your problem? Footballers are competing in a performance of masculinity, one with no room for weakness.
My mentioning of masculinity is not to say that women footballers, among other genders, do not play whilst injured. Rather, I am treating masculinity here as an organizing ideology that affects all genders. In feminist studies, we’ve long recognized the disavowal of physical weakness, as the gender dichotomy is that men are more rigorous with a higher pain threshold in comparison to women, which results in men trying to live up to this standard. Everyone is prone to internalizing masculinity, myself included. When I attended physical therapy, my therapist would ask me to rate how much my pain disrupted my daily life on a scale of 1-10. I’d always say “3,” but really chronic pain disrupts my life more like a 6 or 7 some days. I lied because I was tired of doctors telling me what I cannot do because of my condition. I wanted to be unstoppable, or at least appear so.
Nobody likes to realize their limits when they’re trying to achieve their dreams. This same Planet Football article mentions Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas’s “courage,” for scoring a penalty against Barcelona in a 2010 match….with a broken leg. It remains unclear when Fabregas acquired the injury, during this match or the previous one. But, as the article boasts, “scoring a penalty against a European giant with a fractured leg is a pretty impressive feat, even if it seemed to worsen the problem.” This rhetoric and logic can motivate other footballers to follow his example, as it adds extra glory to his penalty. Can we not find a balance, citing Fabregas’ skill and luck without glorifying the worsening of his injury?
Masculinity’s emphasis on strength as a sign of social value brings us to the other organizing logic behind injuries: ableism. Typically, ableism is used to discuss discrimination against disabled people. However, the term also applies to negative attitudes toward bodies perceived as weak, needing help, and unreliable. It is a sport, so physical weakness can cause tactical problems; the issue is when a player is blamed or shamed for their injuries, either directly or indirectly. Direct shaming includes actions such as blaming a footballer’s playing style on their injury or called “mentally weak” for not recovering faster. Indirect shaming might result in managers and players losing trust in a player’s ability to perform when they are fit.
A few glances on social media after an injury displays this ableist sentiment as well as the worst of football fans. It is common to see opposition fans celebrating a team player’s injury as it weakens the team, disrupting their lineup and tactics. A club’s own fans sometimes express their frustration and annoyance over a player’s injury, blaming the player, which heightens even more if the player is injury-prone. Both replies incentivize the player to rush their recovery, maybe even hide, lie, or downplay their condition. Their bodies aren’t letting them down: they are letting everyone else down, or so this toxic rhetoric goes.
By confronting and making visible this organizing idea of weakness as shameful, we can create a culture in which footballers make informed decisions about their bodies with as little toxic influence as possible. It’s these toxic attitudes that contribute to footballers relying on painkillers, numbing themselves from feeling their bodies at all. As such, there must also be a way to intervene if footballers are pushing themselves too hard.
For example, in a 2013 World Cup qualifier, Vincent Kompany crashed into Serbia keeper Vladimir Stojkovic, causing a broken nose and crushed eye socket, an obvious head trauma risk. Yet, Kompany simply received sideline medical care and then played the rest of the match, leading Belgium to a 2-1 win over Serbia. Later, we learned Kompany suffered a concussion. So, how did the medical team miss this? Since there was an indicator of head trauma- a direct blow to the face- it’s concerning that Kompany was let back on the pitch. Being a star player may cloud judgment, not just for the player, but for the managers who need this player to win the match.
It is easy to blame the manager or the medical team, as critics have done in the case of Rashford, among others forced to play. But, we cannot confront the issue of footballers’ playing on pre-existing injuries without acknowledging the conditions that contribute to injury and re-injury.
In recent years, the festive period has become seemingly busier for Premier League clubs, often competing in multiple cup titles at once in addition to an overhaul of press, social, and personal obligations. Liverpool’s recent festive season, in particular, was met with heightened scrutiny for their decision to play their youth squad in an FA match rather than tire out the main squad. Breaks are harder to come by, and it shows. Over the course of 13 days, 74 players were injured during the 2019-20 festive period in the Premier League alone. That’s about 6 players per day. At the same time, the transfer window opened, as clubs scrambled to piece together lineups to sustain their club until players healed. But some clubs couldn’t wait. Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe admitted to playing injured footballers in their January clash against West Ham, demonstrating a broken structure within the league that allows for these decisions to be made. While ultimately, someone should be held accountable, there’s clearly system-level and ideological flaws pressuring poor decision-making that puts footballers at risk.
So, how do footballers, clubs, and leagues change to make more caring decisions about when to play and when to sit out? There’s no easy or quick answers.We cannot just tell footballers to stop doing it. I’ve had a hundred publishers and doctors tell me to stop writing so much. Do I listen? Nope. Partially because my income depends on writing, but really, mainly because I cannot imagine my life without it. My writing is an extension of myself like football is to them. Not playing can hurt just as bad as a physical injury; the emotional effects are real.
We can however create an environment that better supports and advocates for injured footballers. First, there needs to be a cultural shift in which there’s open and honest discussion about the stigma surrounding injury, explaining that injured footballers aren’t letting the club down or the fans; they don’t need to prove themselves, they’ve already done that as pro footballers. Next, medical teams should work most closely with footballers, to help them make the best decisions for their minds, bodies, and careers. Lastly, clubs need to work together and advocate for fair and healthier playing conditions from the league, which means doing things like scheduling fixtures with more breaks, expediting loan processes so managers can have a full squad and aren’t tempted to play injured footballers, and the league can hold managers and teams accountable, with consequences, if they are found to be playing injured footballers.
Football will never be injury-free and, hopefully, footballers will never lose the passion that makes them want to give it their all for their team. Yet, giving it “their all” and risking their health must never be an obligation, expectation, or consequence of a flawed system.