“He thought someone hit him in the Achilles', and you know usually what that means,” Reggie Miller said on TNT’s broadcast.
“You’re exactly right. You know exactly what that means,” his partner, Kevin Harlan, said.
“That’s what Kobe Bryant did,” Miller said, alluding to Bryant’s torn Achilles’ tendon in 2013. “I’m not saying he has that, but this is exactly what Kobe did. There’s no one around him, but you think someone hit you in the back of the leg.”
And then the online injury speculation began. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Fox Sports’s Skip Bayless tweeted predictions of an Achilles’ tear.
“We know what that usually means: Ruptured Achilles,” Smith wrote.
“I sure hope that isn’t what it looked like . . . like Kevin Durant just tore his Achilles,” Bayless wrote.
Twitter even created a “moment” to chronicle the conversation as fans rushed to diagnose the ailing star, even though only about 30 minutes passed between the time of the injury and the Warriors’ announcement that Durant merely suffered a calf strain. (About 15 minutes after the injury, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote that “early indications” were that “it doesn’t appear to be an Achilles injury.”)
But when Tory Lindley watched the highlights hours later, he wasn’t left wondering what happened. He saw the injury right away.
“It seemed very much like a calf strain,” said Lindley, president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.
When athletes suffer injuries in televised competitions, fans fix their eyes on the screen — if they can bear to watch the replays — and attempt to diagnose the injury from the couch. For medical professionals who are also sports fans, that concentration is even more intense.
“It’s an underworld of injury diagnosis and speculation, hopefully with a better trained set of eyes,” Lindley said.
The same way coaches can’t watch a game without thinking up strategy or players on the bench imagine what they’d do on the field, medical professionals watch the game through a unique lens, hoping to spot injuries first and diagnose them, as if the process was a sport all its own.
“Doctors watch the play much differently than fans watch the play,” said Ellen Smith, a recently retired emergency room physician and sports medicine expert.
During football games, for example, Smith watches each position group in a specific order on every snap — the center, then the guards and tackles, defensive ends, quarterback, linebackers, receivers and, finally, defensive backs — to pick out potentially troublesome situations.
When broadcasters tell audiences they’re going to show a replay of a grisly injury just one time, that’s when medical professionals sit up straighter and hush others in the room, Lindley said. They post videos of injuries on social media or text them back and forth to colleagues.
For doctors or athletic trainers who teach, they may bookmark videos to show to students.
Then they make a diagnosis.
“We do have a really good idea of what’s going on,” Smith said.
Ligament tears in the knee, especially the ACL, are easy to pick out even when ordinary fans might miss them, Lindley said. Broken forearms or collarbones are simple for Smith to spot, along with dislocated joints — “very satisfying” injuries for doctors, she said, because they can provide instant relief by popping it back into place.
Durant’s calf strain could have been easily diagnosed, too, Lindley said. Achilles tears usually involve a dynamic movement, and Durant had simply landed after a jump shot. An athlete’s reaction after an Achilles’ tear is often more dramatic, too. Bryant, known for his pain tolerance, stayed on the ground for several moments after his injury, then took himself out of the game.
"I was just hoping it wasn’t what I knew it was,” he said at the time (via ESPN).
If broadcast teams had a medical consultant standing by, Lindley suggested, they potentially could have quashed any speculation of an Achilles’ tear for Durant on the air.