Sports Injuries: A Look At The Data

If life is a ballgame, then NPR's Mike Pesca is the guy in the stands, carrying his own stat-sheet and searching out empirical evidence. Host Rachel Martin speaks with Pesca about what the numbers have to say about injuries.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALLGAME")

SISTER WINONA CARR: (Singing) Life is a ballgame being played each day. Life is...

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If life is a ballgame, then NPR's Mike Pesca is the guy in the stands carrying his own stat sheet and madly searching for empirical evidence. Hey, Mike. How's it going?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: You paint a picture of a guy who you don't want to watch a ballgame next to.

MARTIN: No, come on. It's an endearing picture. You like stats.

PESCA: Who's that dork with the stat sheet?

MARTIN: So your commitment to data, Mike, has gotten the better of you, I understand. You're running your own studies these days? What's going on?

PESCA: I have lab coats and beakers and everything.

Well, I think all good scientific studies come from a question. And so, anyone who's been watching the NBA playoffs sees that there are all these players getting injured. In fact, the very first game of the Chicago Bulls' playoffs, Derrick Rose, last year's MVP, went down with an ACL tear - ruining the Bulls' season.

MARTIN: It was a dramatic moment, right?

PESCA: Yeah, I was a horrible moment. There he is writhing on the floor. You know, just a few hours, later in the Knicks game, Iman Shumpert goes down with the same injury. Other things we're in the Knicks season. But immediately people said - the fans of those teams, critics of the NBA - said, you know, this is a consequence of the lockout-shortened season.

So many games were compressed, the players were tired. And it was this fatigue that led to these injuries of the anterior cruciate ligament.

MARTIN: And you said to yourself, this must be true? Or you started asking questions?

PESCA: I immediately - I will tell you, I immediately - and I was on record 'cause I do a podcast, where sometimes I pop off about these things. I immediately said this is just a - people saying that are beholden to the very human need to find explanations for random activity. These ACL tears, they can happen at any time. They happen for a lot of reasons. It's pretty much random and you're trying to place blame, because blame makes us feel good.

And I had the NBA commissioner backing me up on that. And I had some doctors were quoted by the AP, like a doctor from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, saying, yeah, there's no evidence that wear and tear, playing too much has a correlation with ACL injuries.

But, you know, other people were suggesting it might. So I said let's really look at this because there's never really been a study done of if fatigue causes ACL injuries on the highest level, among NBA players. Now, if it did, Rachel - I'm going to ask you.

MARTIN: OK.

PESCA: When, during a game or season, do you think we'd see more injuries?

MARTIN: Well, when players are more tired. Right, so at the end of the game or at the end of a season presumably.

PESCA: Yeah, exactly. And so, that's what I was wondering. And I'd never seen anyone say this. I'd never seen anyone identifying the fourth quarter as the danger zone for injuries. So I shot an email to Kevin Pelton who writes for Basketball Prospectus, and he does a lot of surveys and he also has a lot of numbers. I had some preliminary numbers.

I started looking up when in the game all these players were injured. And we published our results. And it turns out that, yeah, it does seem that the more you play and the more tired you are, the greater your chances for a torn ACL. I would say if there was one sentence that's the take away, it's that the five minutes of playing time where players are most likely to tear their ACLs comes between the 33rd and 39 minutes.

MARTIN: Really?

PESCA: In a 48-minute game, that's notable.

MARTIN: OK, things you learned.

PESCA: Yeah, I'd say perhaps I've contributed to our body of knowledge. Thank you.

MARTIN: I, for one, feel smarter. So thank you for that. But before we let you go though, anything else catch your eye, any kind of wild card story for the week?

PESCA: Well, in the NHL, the Devils and Rangers are enmeshed in an interesting playoff series. The winner will go to the Stanley Cup finals. I probably should talk about some of those players. I'd rather talk about the coach because Rangers Coach John Tortorella is always getting into these brawls with the media. If he doesn't like a question, he'll let you know. He'll mock you. He especially scraps with The New York Post reporter. You know, OK, Brooksie, that's a stupid question, he'll be saying.

And a guy named DJ Steve Porter, who specializes in this sort of media, took a bunch of Tortorella's press conferences and put this out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO, "NEXT QUESTION")

JOHN TORTORELLA: I'll answer these questions here first. What? Next question. Just ask the question, please.

Not talking about the refs.

No. Next question.

Not talking about the calls.

No. No.

Not talking about the game.

What? It becomes a mental game. It's just one game. Next question. Do we have a chance? Yes. Next question. We need to attack. Yes. Next question. Yes, I do. What? Next question. No, I don't. Who's next....

MARTIN: So, he's clearly annoyed.

PESCA: Yeah, and it's very entertaining. So here's a conundrum. The hockey writers, the media, love this act, love this show. They want it to go on for as long as they can. But he usually doesn't get really cranky unless the Rangers lose. If the Rangers lose too much, they'll be eliminated. That's why things have worked out perfectly if you're a fan of the John Tortorella press conference, because the Rangers, although they're advancing in the playoffs, they're taking every series to the maximum seven games.

Meaning they're losing three games...

MARTIN: They're losing just enough.

PESCA: Yes.

They're losing the maximum amount to continue and therefore we'll have more great art from DJ Steve Porter and his muse, John Tortorella.

MARTIN: Mike Pesca, thanks as always.

PESCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARR: (Singing) God gave John a vision and he knew he already won. Yes, you know life is a ballgame being played each day. You know, life is a ballgame each and everybody can play. Yes, you know, Jesus is standing at the home plate. He's waiting for you there. Well, you know life is a ballgame but you got to play it fair.

MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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