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Commentary Apr 15, 2014

Abby is hurt again; is time for her to play smarter?

WendyLeBolt-HeaderShe’s gone and done it again. This time Abby Wambach has fractured an orbital bone. That’s one of the bones in the skull that forms the depression designed to protect those very important eyeballs. It’s really quite miraculous how our skulls are shaped, preventing our little two-year-old selves from doing a face plant and damaging the organs we use to see. Noses get bonked all the time. They get broken, rearranged, set back in place and on we go. But eyes, they’re something else altogether.

So here’s the image Abby tweeted after sustaining this eye injury in the U.S. Women’s National Team’s “friendly” against China. She wrote: “You never know how much you take for grated. All is good though I’m gonna have a solid shiner.” “Grated,” indeed. Tweeting after an eye injury can be very enlightening. Abby may want to have someone proof read her tweets when she is sending them with one eye swollen shut.

[ + Led by Lloyd, U.S. Women beat China again as interim boss Jill Ellis tweaks lineup ]

As a result of this injury, Abby missed her opening game with the Western New York Flash. She was set to play against the Washington Spirit but had to sit out – as she should. Not a big deal, unless you are one of the 2,306 Spirit fans who were coming out to the Maryland SoccerPlex as much to see Abby Wambach, leading goal scorer of all time as they were to see their Spirit players in action. Sorry fans. A double whammy: no Abby and unfortunately, your Spirit still dropped the home opener.

The latest of Abby’s injuries has me shaking my head again. When will she recognize that wambachfriendlies are meant to be, well, friendly? That if she really wants to have long term impact on the young players who play the game she loves,  she needs to play as smart as she plays hard. Her long list of serious injuries could be excused when she was a young maverick who didn’t know any better. Now she’s a seasoned veteran carrying the weight of a nation of female soccer players on her shoulders; they’re all coming out to see her play. She needs to be in the lineup, not on the bench nursing the latest injury.

Unfortunately, this reminds me of Abby’s previous appearance against the Spirit on April 20th of a year ago, when she sustained a concussion but waved off assistance. That injury she didn’t see coming. An ill-advised clear by her own defender caught her not-looking and knocked her to the turf. But she stayed in the game when she shouldn’t have. The league now admits the situation was mishandled.

So, when does the macho take a seat and the mature stand up? When does a player’s responsibility to stay healthy supersede her goal-scoring potential?  When does she move from impact player to marquee player? When does appearance trump performance?

Abby_Wambach signing autographs croppedI don’t know if there is one right answer to that question. But Abby Wambach’s got to have one. She needs to add wisdom to her warrior. For the sake of her fans and the game, she needs to be smarter about these plays that are so dangerous that only one player is going to come out standing. Staggering doesn’t count.

In this era where concussion is the hushed word on every sideline and parents live in fear of whether their child will make it through high school ball to compete at college, we need role models who play as smart as they play hard. Why not let the goalie field that ball so you can challenge on the next attempt? Why not allow the midfielder to bring it out of the air so you can challenge for it on the pitch? There is nothing demeaning about playing this way. It’s smart. It’s sound. And, in the end, it wins games.

Oh, and it leaves the brain intact and the body unbroken. That is, after all, why we play sport. So we can play the next game, and live lives empowered and not impaired by our athletic endeavors.

When health trumps hubris, everyone wins. Can we be a nation that leads athletes to that conclusion? 

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