Cutler, Kobe, and Bynum: How we look at injuries

Sunday afternoon, before any diagnosis was made on the left knee of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, I joked with my dad about the result of the game.

Albert Pena/Icon SMI

How does Kobe's legendary toughness color the way we see the rest of the Lakers?

"If I'm him, I'm scheduling some sort of surgery on my leg this week. Even if its elective."

Not because I questioned whether the injury was legit, but because it was patently obvious Cutler would get destroyed among fans, and perhaps some in the media too. And this was before I saw what other players were tweeting about him. Cutler is a perfect target for this sort of thing: He comes off surly and detached, is the most frustrating player on the planet when it comes to fantasy play (don't scoff -- that matters), and has never won anything significant.

Healthy reserves of goodwill come in handy at times like these. That he found so little sympathy in the hours after the game isn't surprising.

His situation, though, raises big questions about how fans and media treat the injuries of players. In L.A., we're used to seeing Kobe Bryant play through physical problems that would land other players in street clothes, if not on the operating table, and generally playing very well. His toughness is legendary. Kobe treats his obligation to the game extraordinarily seriously.

Kobe's Kevlar nature is such a dominant part of the team's narrative it often projects negatively on other players and teammates. Everyone is compared to him. Lamar Odom has played through myriad physical problems over the last few seasons. I've watched him after games struggle to put on a shirt or limp back to his car. Still, toughness isn't nearly as large a part of his narrative as it should be. Continue on to Andrew Bynum. Too often hurt, seen as slow to heal. It wouldn't be a Lakers season without some undercurrent questioning whether Bynum is returning fast enough from an injury. It happened this year, it happened a year ago, and the year before that. He bought himself some goodwill with a gritty performance in the playoffs a season ago, but there will always be fans who question Bynum's ability to stay healthy and his willingness to play in and through pain.

The former is reasonable -- he has often been hurt -- the latter far more dicey.

No question some athletes have a higher tolerance for pain than others, or for playing at less than a hundred percent.

Still, it's difficult for me to call a guy out and say he should be playing, that an injury isn't legitimate. Not without nearly bulletproof information. I don't think I've ever done it, because knowing exactly what sort of pain a player feels is impossible. Over time a profile and reputation can develop, but pain just can't be measured by the media.

Too often what we're measuring as observers and consumers of sports isn't actual toughness, but the appearance of it. A guy making sure everyone sees the limp or grimace. Could Cutler have continued playing? I suppose, most of the time, you could always try (even though the medical staff apparently pulled him off the field). Should he have? Who knows? I suspect not, but what people really wanted to see was the show. The aesthetics of toughness. Gritting his teeth and limping to the sidelines after one last hit before grabbing his crutches and an ice bag.

Except the show wouldn't have helped the Bears, just Cutler.

The most impressive acts of athletic toughness are like well-executed plastic surgery or hair replacement: Done right, you have no idea a procedure even took place.

All players play hurt. The season is too long, too grueling not to. Some players do so without complaint, others don't.

No player has an obligation to legitimately risk his health and future (or the success of the team) to get on the court. All players have an obligation to play when they can, even if it hurts, if that risk isn't there. It's what they're paid (well) to do. Where that line falls is fuzzy, and drawing it definitively for an athlete in a specific situation is one thing I'm reluctant to do without rock-solid information.

Watching from my living room, or noting a player is still out nine weeks later when the original projection said four to six, doesn't qualify.