As a fan left mourning the remains of a lost season of missed opportunities for the Chicago Fire, I have had plenty of time to reflect. One of the moments that personified this season of disappointments for me was the loss of Mike Magee to a hip injury. Most fans knew that Mike Magee was struggling but the source of those struggles - whether due to fitness concerns, nagging injury, or just lack of caring after receiving his big payday - was not apparent until after Magee's injury was announced.
It was not just that Magee's injury coming as a sudden surprise that personified the nature of the Chicago Fire season for me. How the situation came to light left changed so many of the previous notions I had about Magee's performance and fitness that it resonated with some of the other negative experiences I had this season. The fact that his injury was not communicated to the fan base that left me wondering if the Chicago Fire and MLS did a disservice to us and to Mike Magee by not communicating earlier some of the struggles he was having.
By the time the injury was announced, the 2013 MVP had struggled throughout the 2014 season, laboring to bring his game back to his prior form. He scored only 7 goals in the 2014 campaign, mostly off of penalties. Since Magee famously held out for a new contract with the Fire during the preseason, missed time at the beginning of the season with an illness acquired on international duty, then struggled to get into form, Fire fans had begun to lose patience with his on-the-field expressions of frustration. Magee missed two games due to his nagging hip injury before the announcement that he had already undergone a right hip procedure to repair articular surface damage of the labrum.
I, for one, was one of the first fans to grumble and critique last season's savior as his performance lagged below the expectations of Magee's earned payday. I noted that he looked lazy on the pitch and seemed to lack the killer instinct that made him such a deadly goal scoring threat in the 2013 campaign. The news of the injury, which may have been causing Magee difficulties long before fans were aware of it, explains some of the lack of form that frustrated fans throughout the season. I actually feel a little guilty about critiquing Magee so hard given what he provided the Fire in 2013.
In retrospect, though, can you really blame me? Other than the illness at the beginning of the season that happened while Mike Magee was called up for the US Men's National Team, there was very little information released to suggest Magee had been anything other than dogging it throughout the season. There were no reports of Magee icing his hip between matches or submitting to MRIs to check for injuries, so there was no reason to believe that Magee's struggles were anything but fitness or willpower.
I posit here that the Chicago Fire and MLS may had done a disservice to Magee by not communicating effectively to the fan base if Magee was struggling throughout the season with nagging injury. I do not have inside information, and I do not have reason to suspect that there was an injury cover-up. Quite the contrary, I am sure the club was working with Magee and his doctors to make responsible decisions about his injury. Only Mike Magee and the club know when he began having symptoms, how those symptoms were interpreted by the player, and the effects on his performance. Only the club and Magee know when it was deemed necessary to have the further testing that ultimately led to the decision to have the procedure. However, by communicating better about injuries and testing, the club could have avoided stirring negative feelings within the fan base. Fans were not aware of the seriousness of the problem until after the procedure was completed and Magee was announced to be out until well into next season.
After the procedure, Chicago Fire Head Coach Frank Yallop commented on the disappointing news for both the Chicago Fire and the Fire Faithful. "It's unfortunate that Mike will be out for an extended period, but he's been struggling this season with the injuries," he said. "After consulting with our medical staff, we decided that this was the best time for Mike to have the procedure."
If Magee had been struggling with injuries all season, why did the fans know nothing about it?
Consider how other American sports go about reporting injuries. As a casual fan of baseball, I subscribe to the MLB iPhone application. One thing that sticks out to me with baseball is that they do an outstanding job of keeping their fan base informed on injuries to players. I get probably 3-4 push notifications on my phone a day just keeping me updated on the injury status of players. Player A left the game after running into the wall. Player B is being flown back to NY for an MRI. Player C is day-to-day. Player D is out 4-6 weeks with an oblique strain. Similarly, this information is made available in all forms of the media.
Other sports like the NFL and NHL do a similarly good job with communicating injuries to their fan bases. The NFL will announce whether a player is questionable, probable or on the injury list if a player has been injured. Why can't MLS provide as much information as other sports?
Now granted the MLB is big business. The average player recently up from the minors in baseball is probably already making as much as Mike Magee is. There is a lot of money riding on player's health in baseball and consequently the follow-up and communication are there for a reason. Many more people in this country are tuning in to ESPN to find out the status of an NFL players injuries and whether they are available to play. We are not quite there yet for MLS. However, MLS fans are extremely passionate and connected to what is going on in the league (the league recently tweeted that MLS fans are among the most digitally-connected in the country) and the importance of sharing information should not be discounted.
Perhaps it could be argued that MLS is more respectful of the privacy of the players. Who wants all of their medical injury information released to the general public? Perhaps the Fire were respecting the wishes of Mike Magee by not releasing information about the injury until after the procedure was complete. I am a proponent of the idea that professional athletes should not have to live their life constantly under public scrutiny. From that perspective, we could look at the player's privacy being more respected as an indication of integrity in the league, and that his personal information is between him and his doctor and is no one else's business. But by not at least letting the fan base know that something may be wrong the team has opened up the player to unnecessary criticism. I disagree that keeping information quiet was the right approach but I respect if it was Magee's own decision.
It is also possible that public relations concerns were foremost in the minds of the Fire front office when it first became apparent that something more than nagging pain was involved. The Fire had just begun recovering from fan disappointment at losing out in the blind draw to the New England Revolution for Jermaine Jones; perhaps they felt the fans were not ready for more bad news. I disagree that this was the right approach if that was the case, because the fan base can certainly handle disappointment. We're Fire fans.
Another possibility is that the widespread release of information on player injuries is more of an American sport phenomenon. Perhaps we are looking at it all wrong, and the Fire and MLS should release information more in the way other football leagues around the world do. Since I follow Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League (EPL), I can think of a case last season where the Spurs were under-reporting a player injury. Last season Erik Lamela, a midfielder for the Spurs, missed a significant amount of time. Without a lot of information being given out, much of the fan base was questioning whether he was truly still injured or if coaching just lacked confidence in his ability. Perhaps this tendency to hide injuries is a soccer/football issue and not an MLS issue? However, the EPL does release updated information daily on injuries and communicate to its fans about player injuries. That information is easily accessible online and relayed to fans on football programing in England and around the world. There is not a significant lack of information available.
To be fair to MLS the information on injuries is available on the MLS website. Still it is hardly free flowing information that provides informative updates. Also, the information released on the MLS site is subject to what the individual clubs releases so if they are not providing detailed and meaningful updates the fans don't know it either. I would like to see the MLS release information more like the MLB or NFL keeping the fans regularly posted on the status of players.
It is not just Magee's case I am writing about, either. How many weeks did we, as Fire fans, wait this season wondering when Patrick Nyarko would once again be available to play? What's the deal with Alex's foot contusion? What are the chances Earnshaw will be able to play this week with his hamstring tightness? Does anyone know if Steven Kinney is still alive? It would be nice to have some idea what is going on with these players as we check in on the club we support. A little speculation on player availability on Chicago Fire Weekly on Saturday mornings - and it is speculation, for those of us that listen - does not feel as if it is enough information on player status.
We as fans cannot expect MLS to be like other high-profile sports. The media does not pay nearly as much attention to MLS as it does to the NFL and MLB; consequently, our access to information will not be as good. Still I think there is an argument to be made that there are ways to keep fans better informed in this world of connectivity and instant access to information that we live in. In the case of Mike Magee, more information would have given fans a better understanding of what he was struggling with and would have protected him from some of the criticism he received during the 2014 season.