Rob Oller: Justin Fields injury puts focus on Ohio State medical procedures
In the time it takes to read this column, the Ohio State football medical staff saved the Buckeyes’ season and made quarterback Justin Fields a ton of money.
That’s one way to look at it, and some do.
Timothy Kremchek, medical director for the Cincinnati Reds and several college athletic teams, thinks Ohio State team doctor Jim Borchers and his staff deserve kudos for the way they handled the injury to Fields, who left Friday's Sugar Bowl against Clemson after getting hit in the ribs during the second quarter. The quarterback returned one play later to throw a touchdown to Chris Olave and remained in the game to lead Ohio State to a 49-28 win.
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“Rather than saying they rushed Fields back into the game, I think the story should be that they helped him come out looking like a superstar. And they also helped Ohio State,” Kremchek said. “I give them accolades. They saved the season and catapulted Ohio State into the national title game.”
But not everyone shares that opinion. Watching Fields writhing on the Superdome turf, then hobbling off the field before re-entering the game less than a minute later, more than a few viewers, including Ohio State fans, wondered how Fields could be back on the field so soon.
Their confusion was compounded after the game when Fields revealed his side of what went on inside the medical tent where he was examined after the Olave touchdown.
“They didn’t really tell me anything,” Fields said of information he received from the OSU medical staff. “I took a shot or two in the tent and just ran back out there. But pretty much my whole right torso is messed up. But they didn’t really give me a diagnosis.”
Or maybe they did and in the stress and excitement of the moment he didn’t remember? Or, with a championship date against Alabama on the horizon, perhaps he did not want to divulge the extent of his injuries? Or possibly he was attempting to follow team protocols about being careful what to say?
But that is speculation, since Ohio State cites privacy laws in refusing to disclose details concerning player health, including injury information.
All there is to go on are Fields’ comments, which at face value suggest little if any back-and-forth occurred between player and medical personnel.
Borchers strongly disputed such a conclusion, insisting protocols were followed properly, including “informed consent,” which he described as “the ability for an athlete or any patient to understand what is going on.” Fleshed out, that means athletes are told what the injury could be and what treatment options are available, including painkillers and muscle relaxants.
As for the idea that medical staff urged or pressured Fields to re-enter a game against his will, Borchers was adamant that does not happen at Ohio State.
“Ultimately, it is 100% the (athlete’s) decision,” he said. “We never return anybody to play who doesn’t want to go back into the game.”
The medical team bases its decision-making on safety, not future level of performance, Borchers said. Whether Fields played well or struggled after the injury was of secondary importance to not putting him at further risk by green-lighting his return, he added. There also is the issue of liability if a doctor approves an athlete’s return knowing a high risk of more serious injury could occur.
Safety first. Donnie Nickey gets it. But the former Ohio State and NFL defensive back also knows the pressures team doctors face in determining whether a player, and especially a quarterback, should return to action.
“I know what the canned answers are: ‘Do what the doctors say,’ ” Nickey told me on Wednesday. “That really puts the onus on the doctors, so unless a doctor wants to be the most hated person in the state of Ohio, he’s probably going to lean on clearing (Fields), right, wrong or indifferent.”
There also is the athlete’s perspective to consider, which is to say that most players, Fields included, want to get back on the field as soon as possible.
“In the NFL, they always say no one knows your body as well as you do, which is saying, ‘You can play if you want,’ ” Nickey said.
Then there is this: any perceived medical hypocrisy, whether specific to Fields or more general, is elevated because of COVID-19. Extraordinary measures are being taken to protect athletes from the virus. But then we see Fields wince in obvious pain through the second half of the playoff semifinal.
“Well, you can’t give sore ribs to the next player. It’s not contagious,” said Randy Wroble, a Columbus orthopedic doctor, dismissing the virus/injury comparison as apples to oranges.
Indeed, it’s a complicated and polarizing issue. Even in my own family, one daughter shrugged as if “nothing to see here” concerning the timing of Fields’ return, while the other questioned the motivation behind allowing a player in obvious pain to resume activity.
I know that football is a high-risk sport with toughness as its foundation. But there are lines regarding player safety that should not be crossed. Watching Fields return so soon against Clemson, my immediate thought was the quarterback is one tough hombre. But a small piece of me wondered how his health could have been accurately diagnosed so quickly.
Borchers relieved most of my concerns. He said it is important to remember that health assessment begins immediately upon medical staff reaching the player on the field, not later in the medical tent. He added, correctly, that his staff are professionals trained to accurately assess on-site injuries quickly.
That is of some comfort to anyone truly concerned with player safety. It also should alleviate worry about whether Fields will be healthy enough to play against Alabama on Monday.
Because if the quarterback was deemed good-to-go enough to return against Clemson, certainly there can be no doubt of his status against the Crimson Tide. Right? RIGHT?