On June 5, 2013 the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins faced off in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals and the game turned out to be a fairly entertaining one; didn’t see a game winner until halfway through the second overtime. During the game Gregory Campbell, a Boston Bruin, blocked a shot with his foot and clearly felt a great deal of pain immediately after blocking the shot; however, he stayed out on the ice, as his team was killing off a penalty, and even managed to affect the play a little. The following morning the Boston Bruins announced that Gregory Campbell will miss the rest of the playoffs with a broken right fibula, another story that came about the same morning was a report that St. Louis Blues forward Andy McDonald was retiring due to concerns about Post-Concussion syndrome.
This is how the “front page” of the NHL section on TSN.ca looked the next morning.
I would like to draw your attention to the two articles in question and how the headlines are worded. For Gregory Campbell’s injury report you can see two things. The article is titled “No Guts, No Glory” and it is headlined by a picture of a injured Gregory Campbell wincing in pain. What’s notable about this picture, and it’s something that some may not have noticed, is that it is a rather heroic pose: wincing in pain but clearly focused on the play, not on his injured foot; down on one knee, not curled up hold his injured foot. On the right there is a video clip queued up for viewing: “TH2N: It’s Called Sacrifice” and the summary under the title is: “TH2N discusses Gregory Campbell’s warrior mentality and how it rallied the players on the bench.”
Gregory Campbell is not an injured player. Gregory Campbell is a Warrior who is rallying his troops to victory by his sacrifice and ability to put his team before himself. He is a man. He is a hockey player. This is what it takes to win.
This isn’t new. In any sport during any season, you will encounter this rhetoric: players who play through the pain are heroes; they are what coaches are looking for. However, if you’ll notice in the other news column there is an article about Andy McDonald and his retirement: “Blues’ McDonald retires, concerned with concussions.” This is also nothing new. Many players, over the years, have retired due to concussions concerns and rightly so, post-concussion syndrome is a very serious condition that is very unpredictable. So, if both these events are nothing new, why am I talking about them? Well, it’s rare that we see both in the same page, nearly side-by-side, juxtaposed like this. Gregory Campbell is a warrior, a hero and Andy McDonald is? What? A quitter? A coward? Shouldn’t he just bury is fears about long term damage, suck it up, and get ready for next season? Much in the same way that Gregory Campbell stayed on the ice to finish his shift?
No media personality in their right mind would call Andy McDonald a cowardly, quitter for retiring because of concussions; this would be an incredibly stupid and insensitive thing to do. Andy McDonald is thinking of his wife, his children, and his future after hockey and how he doesn’t want to do that with a serious medical condition affecting his daily life. Hockey careers end well before life does. Players know this. Media knows this. Fans know this. But why does Gregory Campbell get the hero treatment?
Well one reason, probably the principle one, is that media outlets like TSN.ca love story lines, especially during the playoffs. It helps sell ad space during the off-season when the run stories like “The Bruins run to the Cup ‘13” or “The Top 10 Playoff Sacrifices” or whatever storyline they can come up with. The other reason, any maybe it’s not a conscious one, is that this is what is expected from men, especially a hyper-masculine man like a professional athlete. He is being built up so that the young boys watching the broadcast will know just what it takes to be a professional hockey player; if you can’t score goals and make the amazing plays then you must “make sacrifices” to be part of the team. Positive reinforcement for ignoring what your body is telling you; ignoring that your body is trying to protect itself to prevent further harm.
We build up and make “playing through the pain” a heroic act and then wonder why men do not go get checked out for more serious medical conditions or how men don’t report violence against them or how men don’t look after their mental health. There is a certain bravado that goes along with sports, this I can accept; however, when there are no contrary messages being presented by the media, young people only ever get one message: real men conquer their pain.
Sports media, media in general, doesn’t need to stop running stories like Gregory Campbell’s altogether. What we need to start seeing is positive reinforcement for men and boys being vulnerable, seeking help, and opening up. This change would be a step in the right direction.