Injuries Tilt The Balance In NBA, NFL

Does Kobe Bryant's latest injury setback signal the beginning of the end of a Hall of Fame career? In the NFL's final regular season weekend there are division titles on the line, but injuries might make the difference there too. Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine talks with NPR's Linda Wertheimer about the week in sports, and the way concussions have shaped sports in 2013 and will continue to do so in the year to come.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now it's time for sports.

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WERTHEIMER: The NBA hoped to bring out its brightest stars on Christmas Day, but another injury to Kobe Bryant cancelled his duel with LeBron James. And in the NFL, division titles and playoff spots are up for grabs, but there too injuries might make the difference. Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine joins us now from the studios of New England Public Radio. Welcome, Howard.

HOWARD BRYANT: And good morning, Linda. How are you?

WERTHEIMER: I'm good. Kobe Bryant, the NBA's biggest star for a decade, but with another injury this week. Do you think his best days are behind him?

BRYANT: Well, they are and I think that it's a very sad narrative so far that's been, well you know, Kobe Bryant's got this heart of a lion and he's a tough guy and he'll come back. Let's face it. Kobe Bryant is 35 years old, he's coming off an Achilles injury and all the heart and all the fortitude in the world is not going to be enough to overcome those types of injuries.

Now he's got a knee injury, he's going to be out another six weeks. He is one of the greatest basketball players that anyone's ever seen and I put him right up there neck and neck with Michael Jordan in terms of what he's done; five championships over his career. But I have a hard time believing that the Kobe Bryant that comes back is going to be anything close to what we've seen over the past 17 years.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's move over to the NFL. The Packers are taking on the Bears, the Cowboys and the Eagles square off, both for division crowns. There's lots going on, but Cowboy's quarterback, Tony Romo not going to play.

BRYANT: Yeah, you've got two winner-take-all games this weekend in the NFL and Romo's out. He had back surgery today I think, or yesterday, and he's not going to be playing. It's going to be a while before we see him on a field again. And that's going to take a little bit away from tomorrow's game. I feel like the Eagles are automatically favorites for that game anyway. They've been the hottest team in the league right now.

They're the team that nobody wants to play and it looks like another heartbreak in Dallas. They're going to have a backup quarterback going out there for them and so it's going to be a really tough game for Cowboy's fans, but hopefully we'll get something good in the Green Bay-Chicago winner-take-all where Aaron Rodgers is coming back.

And that's the NFL for you, Linda. The injuries are as important as anything. It's a really difficult, tough year for them, but once again, the sport - the final score is nowhere near as important as the injury report.

WERTHEIMER: So let's take stock. How has this year been?

BRYANT: It's been a difficult year. It's been a hard year for every, every sport, especially the contact sports. You've got the CTE issues, the head trauma issues; you've got the real problem with sports this year is that I think for the first time, because of the empirical data, because of all the research that neurosurgeons have done across the country, that this bigger, faster, stronger narrative is no longer a compliment, that there are limits to what the human body can sustain.

And this year, whether it's the suicides of NHL players, the suicides of NFL players and even Ryan Freel, the Major League Baseball player last year who ended his life, showed signs of CTE. We're starting to find out that this head trauma issue is not a joke and I think that people talk about it being the year of safety. It really hasn't been the year of safety, in my opinion.

I think it's really been the year of masculinity in sports because you've got this collision course, you've got the limits of what the human body can do, but you also have this macho culture where every single time you have sports bodies or governing bodies coming out saying, look, we have to make these games more safe for the players, then you've got this other group of the macho culture saying, hey, well, why don't these guys just wear dresses and why don't they, you know, why don't they wear high heels now?

Because the game's not what the game used to be. Even Major League Baseball is going to do a lot to eliminate home plate collisions. So these sports now have reached a real tipping point that you can't finesse anymore and I think what we have now is you've got this battle between commerce and libertarianism. It's like no one's putting a gun to your head, but I don't think that's going to be enough.

WERTHEIMER: Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. Thanks, Howard.

BRYANT: My pleasure.

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WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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