Brooks Laich skated with the Capitals in New York last week, between Games 3 and 4 of his team’s first-round NHL playoff series. He wiped out once, which made his teammates — and him — laugh out loud. Afterward, he said he hoped to play in the second round of the playoffs, if the Caps made it. That didn’t happen.
Then came the uncomfortable portion of the interview. Laich said reports that he had undergone surgery for a sports hernia were incorrect. He got a little heated, and that heat was directed at beat writers Katie Carrera and Stephen Whyno, among others. He would not confirm or deny he had surgery (which is as good as a confirmation) but wouldn’t say anything else.
The beat writers — the ones who follow the Caps most closely, home and road — talked to him after the main interview was over, basically saying, “Hey, if we got it wrong, we want to know; what was wrong?”
Laich would not say. The sources again confirmed the story. And the great mystery continued.
The exchanges left me wondering how much of this is our business — “our” meaning the media and the fans. The job of a beat writer is to ask questions and report the nature of an injury, when possible. The job of the NHL, in part, is to protect the privacy of its players, hence the “upper body” and “lower body” designations. There is a reason for this: No team wants to tell its opponents where its players are more vulnerable. There’s a reason no one knew Alex Ovechkin had a broken bone in his left foot until after the fact.
Ticket holders and cable and DirecTV customers have some right to know about injuries. Do you renew your season tickets if you find out Ovechkin or Robert Griffin III or Bryce Harper is going to be out for an entire season? Do you even attend games? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Medical privacy has been taken to ridiculous lengths. Several summers ago when I was visiting my parents, a family friend had a horrible accident and was airlifted to Wichita, Kan. We were told he might lose a leg. We tried to find out what hospital he was in, but no one would tell us. Finally I badgered a nurse into admitting that yes, he was in her hospital. I never asked about his condition, because that wasn’t my business and she wasn’t allowed to say. But not telling us where he had been taken? That, to me, is medical privacy run amok. (We hurried to see him, and happily they were able to save his leg.)
Laich should have the same protections any of us have. He doesn’t have to tell us what his surgery was for or even if he had surgery. But his mistake was implying the reporters were liars, but refusing to say what the lie was. (And of course, they aren’t liars; reporters don’t make up information like this.) He could have simply refused to comment. Happens all the time.
Instead, he obfuscated the issue with coy answers. And this is one of the go-to guys on the team. That’s why his behavior in New York was so surprising. After the season, he admitted to having surgery, but still wouldn’t say what kind of surgery. Fine. That’s his right. The season’s over anyway.
Every player is different: Bryce Harper tweeted a photo of his ingrown toenail (thanks for that!); Laich didn’t want to reveal the type of surgery he had. Neither was wrong. But neither are the reporters whose job it is to find out about these things, or the readers who push the reporters to ask these questions.
We just can’t assume we’re entitled to answers, and athletes can’t behave as if we’re not entitled to ask.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.