Commenting responsibly

Op-ed: News organizations should consult physicians when discussing NFL injuries

As sports injuries become a bigger topic of discussion, it would be appropriate to call on the expertise of a sideline sports medicine physician.


These days, too many sports-related injuries being discussed on social media are evaluated by retired athlete announcers who often, while well-intentioned, are overwhelmed or ill-prepared to discuss the depth of the problems that the injuries present. It is inappropriate for sports commentators to discuss injuries without any medical support, training or experience.

Most color analysts (sports commentators who assist the main broadcast commentator on a sports show or broadcast) are former coaches or players of the respective sports who can help provide analysis and background information on the teams and athletes. As sports injuries become a bigger topic of discussion, it seems appropriate to call on the expertise of a sideline sports medicine physician who has command of the current evidence-based treatments, rehabilitation and return to performance issues.

Commentary might be inspired by their own backgrounds

It appears that the depth of experience of former coaches and athletes comes from how their injuries were treated while playing or coaching. Presentations from high school and college versus professional sports presentations in the media are lacking key elements of interest and concern to viewers.

In all sports, there has always been a strong interest in accidents and injuries and an obsession with medical information and disposition. Often the commentators can miss the opportunity to discuss the injury, how it is diagnosed, various standard treatments and potential rehab and return to play/performance. It would be beneficial if the commentary could come from an unbiased, experienced sideline sports medicine injury analyst.

On a recent Saturday Division l NCAA Football Game, a sideline color commentator discussed a player’s singular tattoo commemorating the date of his mother’s death from sickle cell anemia. This was a personal interest story that could have significant ramifications by suggesting that the player himself has the sickle cell trait, which should be protected medical information. However, now that it is public information, future teams may consider this medical detail with the potential for significant deleterious health issues.

How commentary can affect the players’ futures

With the onset of name, image and likeness (NIL) considerations, his future earning potential could be affected. Too much information is shared by players, coaches and color commentators who often do not realize the significance of sharing health information publicly.

If, for example, a team physician shared this information regarding a patient player, he could lose the confidence of the team and be the subject of sanctions, disciplinary action or licensure suspension.

If a physician spoke like the announcers, sharing the personal health information of an athlete, they would be sanctioned for HIPAA violations and potentially lose their medical license. Instead, the focus is on how the more personal reports generate greater interest and better ratings. The entertainment factor appears to supersede HIPAA and health care.

Athletes often share too much personal health information to those who can sensationalize it for other purposes. Being interviewed on national television or radio before or after a sports event is a momentous occasion, and not every athlete is prepared. Nor does every athlete have the discretion to not share too much information or the presence of mind to not answer every question that is posed. It almost seems unfair. Frequently, sideline physicians, trainers and coaches speaking with persistent color analysts are compelled to say too much.

The importance of commentators respecting patient privacy

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations have attempted to delineate what, if any, personal health information (PHI) can be shared by health care providers. I contend that compelled discretion should be shared by all who have contact with these vulnerable athletes and not just team physicians or other members of the collaborative care team.

A recent broadcast from the Cleveland Browns radio show post-game wrap-up discussed a prominent player’s ankle injury and reported he would receive PRP injections and be on injured reserve for six weeks. The episode seemed to serve as advertising for the doctors and special treatments offered by the team’s health care contractors.

In the past, less was more, and the report followed: the lower extremity injury will be treated appropriately, with a possible return in 4-6 weeks, if all goes well. It appears that the color analysis has become complicit in the effort to sensationalize sports medicine and promote treatments and health systems who often sponsor the teams and associated advertisers. Often personality, popularity and profitability supplant education and experience when approaching sports injuries. Too much color and not enough analysis. It’s important that commentators attempt to stay in their appropriate lane of detail.

Why not employ the expertise of a sports medicine injury analyst who can be available to provide insight and transparent logistics on the injury or medical condition and how it will be diagnosed, treated and how and when the athlete will return to play/performance? Analysis from the perspective of a board-certified sports medicine physician with high level sideline experience and a command of the evidenced-based best practice, while not excluding contemporary trends, could be so beneficial to the discussion, including knowing where the boundaries should lie.

The likeliness of experiencing sports injuries

Frequent complex sports illnesses and injuries arise in myriad sports contests. An exercise-associated collapse is the first and foremost serious sports medicine situation, and sports-related concussions, which occur frequently, are poorly understood by well-trained team physicians, much less a color analyst. Neck and back injuries also occur frequently and chronically, and often have variable return to play time frames. Unfortunately, mental health issues are also often overlooked.

Fellowship-trained osteopathic sports medicine specialists are particularly suited to offer expert analysis of athletic injuries and illnesses from a sideline perspective and can offer diagnosis and treatment plans that promote evidence-based remedies rather than the current sensational missives that commentators are providing.

According to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM), approximately 90% of all sports injuries are non-surgical, so an osteopathic sports medicine specialist is a good option for sideline care. A physician sports medicine injury analyst would be well-qualified to offer a valuable added perspective without bias or agenda that centers on evidence-based medicine and does not violate personal privacy or standards of professionalism. Osteopathic sports medicine physicians are highly effective sideline health care professionals who could step into this role very naturally.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

What sports medicine fellowship program directors look for in applicants

Esports: Competitive gaming and its health implications

Leave a comment Please see our comment policy