I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach as I sat in the local Kaiser hospital, as the doctor - holding a knee that looked more like a rounded eggplant in both shape and color - told me what I’d presumed: I would not be able to play in my AYSO team’s playoff game. I was never a terribly talented athlete - football or otherwise - and, coincidentally, the teams I’ve played on were never very successful. And there’s no way I could have known then, but this would be the closest I’d ever come to playing in a playoff game for a team I’d come to love.
On the way home from the hospital, I played over and over the scene that lead to the injury: ice skating at a public rink, the feeling of invincibility as I dared my sister and brother to race me, looking at my parents smiling intensely the moment before my skate caught an edge and sent me flying. And now, here I was, the victim of my own hubris and clumsiness.
A week or so later, I had a hard time making it out of bed to go watch my team play in their match. My mom badgered me into finally getting dressed. I arrived late, watched from the far end, and caught the last minutes of my team’s capitulation. I remember feeling really small, next to my crutches, and wanting to get out of there as soon as possible.
News this week broke that Liverpool FC midfielder Alexander Oxlade-Chamberlain would likely miss the entire 2018-2019 Premier League season due to the knee injury he suffered in the run-in to this past season. At the time of the injury, there was hope that Ox might be back by mid-November. Klopp, though, indicated that it was all a bit of a smokescreen to prioritize the team’s preparations ahead of the Champions League Final against Real Madrid.
“We have known this from pretty much the day after he got the injury, and after the successful surgery we were sure of it. I hope everyone treats this information responsibly. There has been no change, no setback – it’s exactly on the schedule we expected and planned for. The new information is that we’re now giving more detail publicly.
“It is typical of Ox that he didn’t want the news to overshadow the end of the season and, to be quite honest, we thought we could wait and tell people at an appropriate time. His surgery – which he had on the day of our second leg in Rome – has been completely successful and his recovery has started superbly well. But the truth of the matter is that we are preparing this season knowing he will not be with us on the pitch for competitive matches for the majority of it. If we do see him back this season, it will be a bonus.”
As news trickled out regarding this, I saw many people understandably giving Alex plaudits for keeping that information to himself. Prioritizing his teammates, not wanting to make a fuss, and thus shouldering the disappointment of a long layoff on his own is, in a way, heroic.
It’s also incredibly lonely.
I’m never going to be a professional athlete, as should be made obvious my stories of past footballing experience (and, now, my tragic turn as an amateur speed skater). So, I’m not here to criticize Ox’s very personal and understandable choice to keep mum on his injury. No one is required to know all things at all times about anyone. And Ox’s choice is a great example of maintaining that boundary.
But I also wonder how different the sporting landscape might be if we imagined that news of someone’s misfortune, someone’s hardship, weren’t viewed as a burden on those of us receiving that news. That his teammates would be expected to circle round him without feeling it a distraction. That we weren’t also tacitly approving of Ox living out what must have been a difficult time for him personally in the shadows, in isolation.
We often reflect on how teams work as units and reflect a mentality that extends beyond the single person. But I wonder what it means to conceptualize that a team must necessarily function while allowing a member of it to suffer in silence.
The coda to my football story isn’t a real coda, I guess. I went on to play one more season of AYSO, scoring my first goal on an incredibly bad team. Which, I guess, is its own reflection of how poor the team was.
And my future prospects were never better: my high school team was historically bad. Like, 18-nil bad. A doormat put up more resistance on most nights and it’s also telling that one of my best footballing memories is playing a vaunted team to a draw while it snowed, in Southern California.
This is all to say that I do not know the experience that comes with heightened scrutiny on the world stage that professional footballers face every day. That I’m not familiar with the ways in which they are asked over and over to sacrifice their bodies and to blunt their personalities to fit an image and an ethic that matches that of a fanbase. A fanbase that expects unending loyalty but whose own loyalty towards those wearing the club crest would not extend beyond a reading of the club’s final table position or the stat sheet for that season’s contribution.
I do not know the calculations one must make and the ways in which that might wear on a person whose entire life has been forged into making this career path a reality. So, I cannot say what I would have done given that experience or knowledge and do not presume to say that Ox’s choice was categorically one I would not make.
But what I am aware of is that how I felt on that day, many years ago, in Manhattan Beach. As I watched my teammates walk to the sidelines with their heads bowed and saw them wave me over to join in on the post-match handshake, I remember that, for that brief moment, I felt a little less small, a little less isolated, and a little more seen. I remember that I did not regret showing up to the field and to be with my teammates. I regretted that I’d waited so long and wasn’t there from the start.