Should struggling teams shut their players down?

When a team under-performs and falls out of playoff contention, the risk-reward equation for playing though a nagging injury changes drastically for certain players. At that point the coaches, the front office, and the player may decide to “shut it down for the season.”

As we saw with Robert Griffin III this year, the decision to shut a player down stokes a variety of opinions among the hordes of online commenters, who tend to lambast players for not living up to their contracts. “If you can play, play,” they say. Some will even accuse a team of tanking.

Despite the noise from online commenters and dissatisfied season ticket holders, there are a number of benefits to letting a player shut it down.

From the player’s perspective, it might be worth the ice baths, the stretching, the anti-inflammatories, and the persistent pain when the playoffs are in sight. However, when the games don’t matter as much, it makes sense to step aside. A few extra months of healing could potentially extend a career by years. 

For the coach, when the playoffs are out of reach, the team’s strategy usually turns toward developing and evaluating young, unproven talent. With the hobbled veteran out of the lineup, this frees up playing time for  up-and-comers.

From an organizational standpoint, “shutting it down” is a means of maximizing the return on their multi-million dollar investment. If benching a proven veteran can increase the likelihood of a healthy and productive next season, then the team has little to lose by letting him sit.

Every year and in every major sport, there seem to be more and more incidences of teams deciding to shut a player down. While it may make sense for the team, they must not forget that it pits them against their fans, who understandably want to see the best product the team has to offer.