I’m coming off two weeks of crippling back problems, so I’ve got pain and recovery on my mind. But I’m a lifelong Cubs fan, so pain of one kind or another is never far from my thoughts.

What I am wondering these days is if our thinking on sports injuries is totally skewed; if we’ve adopted the shorthand of labeling guys as “injury-prone” or “quick healers” and lost sight of just what these modern gladiators go through for the sake of our entertainment.

You can’t follow Chicago sports without hearing about the ongoing story/controversy surrounding Bulls’ star Derrick Rose. Rose suffered a grisly injury, tearing his left ACL in the first game of last season’ playoffs. He has been medically cleared to return to the court for a while now, but does not yet have enough confidence in his repaired knee to test it in a game.

And while Bulls fans and others across the NBA continue to grumble and complain about Rose’s supposed cowardice, many athletes across the sports world have encouraged him to ignore his critics and stick to his own timetable. The common reasoning is that these guys know their bodies better than any doctor, and they shouldn’t rush back from an injury and put themselves at further risk.

Having had my right ACL replaced, I can’t argue with that. It’s a weird injury to suffer–it feels like everything in your knee has unraveled, sort of like busting a lace on your shoes. And from the moment it happens, it’s hard to remember what your knee felt like when it was still healthy. That goes on throughout the recovery process, first as you keep it agonizingly immobile for a few weeks, and then as you slowly start to relearn how to bend your knee and trust it to hold your weight. As your leg hangs virtually useless from you body for weeks on end, you start to lose faith in it. You get comfortable not trusting it, not depending on it, and not even really needing it. It’s like a rebellious faction of your body you’re trying to bring back under your control.

No doubt the Bulls have had the best doctors in the world working with Rose, employing the most aggressive physical therapy to get him back into shape. But his line of work requires him to have complete confidence in his physical abilities–to trust them to work in instantaneous harmony, and not betray him with weakness or inconsistency. That’s not something a doctor can sign off on. It takes time to learn to trust your new knee, because no matter how superb the surgery was, it will never again feel like it once did. It takes patience, and that’s not something athletes or we fans are particularly good at.

Part of that is due to the occasional speedy recovery or guys who just seem to just “heal fast.” For every dozen Derrick Roses there’s a Ray Lewis, who only needed a matter of weeks to return from a torn triceps muscle. Whatever it was that aided Lewis’ superhuman recovery–whether it was the rumored Deer Antler Spray or some other sketchy substance–he made it back to the field in record time for one last victory lap and another Super Bowl ring.

So what’s the eager fan to do? Do we root for our guys to claw their way back onto the field, employing any and every means necessary to patch their bodies? Do we submit to the Jose Canseco “Steroids Are Good For You” school of thought, and ignore the dangers athletes might face in the process? Or do we pump the brakes on our fanaticism, understanding that a lost season isn’t the biggest tragedy in life or even in sports, and root for guys like Rose to return to the court only when they’re 100% ready to be back?

If this whole thing has any link back to Cubs baseball, maybe it’s this: like most of you, I’ve made my share of jokes about towel drills and soft pitchers. In the past there probably wasn’t much certain ex-Cubs could do to convince me they didn’t baby their injuries, quitting on the team and their own careers. But realistically, I don’t know what their bodies are telling them, and how or why they knew something was wrong.

Nor do I know why something as simple as a joint slightly out of alignment can keep me hunched over, render my legs numb and useless, send body-shaking spasms throughout my back, and virtually incapacitate me for days on end; or why a week and several treatments later I feel almost completely back to normal. The inescapable reminder in all of this is that our bodies are delicate, wondrous creations, and that we shouldn’t take so lightly the sacrifices of athletes who put theirs on the line for our enjoyment.

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