One thing I don't often bring into the discussion here is the fact that I am an NBA junkie. As a kid I was obsessed with pretty much all spectator sports, but now I've settled into basketball. I came across something today that brought home for me something which I think is seldom discussed in sports circles; the questionable ethics of medical professionals in big-time sports. This is from today's LA Times:
Laker draft pick Ronny Turiaf will undergo open-heart surgery to repair an enlarged aortic root and will sit out one season, if not longer, as he recuperates from a condition that could have taken his life if not diagnosed.
Turiaf, 22, will have surgery in four to six weeks to treat the condition, which was detected by Laker doctors after extensive testing. Turiaf, a 6-foot-10 forward selected No. 37 by the Lakers in last month's draft, signed a two-year contract last week that was contingent upon his passing a physical.
Turiaf was a great college player at Gonzaga who I hoped my preferred team (the Philadelphia 76ers) would draft. What I didn't know is that doctors have known about his abnormal heart for years:
Turiaf, who grew up on the Caribbean island of Martinique and played high school basketball in Paris, had tests done several years ago in France that showed an abnormality of the heart, but was cleared to play. Tests done last month at the NBA's pre-draft camp in Chicago also presented an abnormality, but he was cleared there as well.
"Naturally, we wish that they would have seen it the way our doctors found it," Laker spokesman John Black said Thursday. "It would have made a difference, but we don't want to point fingers. We feel fortunate that it was found when it was. It probably saved the kid's life.
The Lakers' spokesman is being nice, IMO. Suffice to say that to those that hold the purse strings in sports, the owners and the agents, what a player can do on the field is often far more important than their long-term (or short-term) health. And this is about more than just medical ethics; it's the entire sports culture. Fans call players "tough guys" for playing hurt and "as soft as tissue paper" if they don't. Everybody but the player has a vested interest in him getting back on the court, and the player wants to play too, because he doesn't want to lose his job, or he doesn't want a negative reputation, or whatever. For their entire lives, these guys are called gifted physical specimens, able to do things ordinary humans can't. Of course they believe they're physically immortal. Meanwhile, early deaths of athletes are commonplace.
Whether it's burying evidence of potential maladies, prescribing steroids and other harmful drugs for athletes, or generally cutting every corner possible to allow injured players to get back on the field quickly, the sports medicine community has failed to put their patients' rights over that of the owners, or the fans. I don't think it's a stretch to say that a real Patients' Bill of Rights would go a long way to remedy this.
Plenty of Americans who don't pay close attention to politics pay attention to sports. They understand in their daily lives how HMOs are often unsympathetic to their concerns, how insurance companies don't want to pay for their procedures, how those in charge of their health care allow "acceptable risks" to their safety to go unchecked. By showing how even multi-million-dollar athletes, role models in this society, have to face the same garbage (albeit for somewhat different reasons) would be an instructive way to get those not clued into the health care debate on the side of concepts like a patients' bill of rights and universal coverage. This would be an outside-the-box move for Democrats, to publicize the Ronny Turiaf case as an example of this country's misplaced health care priorities.