Skip to main content

Even in a world of hot takes and social media, Giannis Antetokounmpo is usually untouchable. On the court, the Milwaukee Bucks star is pretty close to a perfect player, barring his occasional shooting woes. Based on what we know of his personal life, the Greek Freak also shines there. He seems remarkably genuine, unafraid to share his hobbies and love of smoothies, and like one of sports’ overall good guys.

Normally, his recent interview with Sam Amick of The Athletic would be another feather in his cap. While many superstars can be closed off, Giannis provided candid answers about his injury en route to the 2021 NBA title. Fans now know exactly what he was dealing with behind the scenes and how close the season came to ending in disappointment.

Playing through the pain and refusing to wear a knee brace are the sorts of things that transcend results and become part of an athlete’s legend. When it comes to a star like Antetokounmpo, though, it deserves to be critiqued rather than praised.

Giannis Antetokounmpo speaks candidly about just about everything, including his scary knee injury

Although he’s an all-world basketball player, Giannis Antetokounmpo also dominates the public relations game. Even if you hate the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s tough to say anything too negative about their main man.

While many pro athletes have an air of invincibility — no matter how much you may have idolized Michael Jordan, he’s not the most relatable — the Greek Freak seems like a regular guy, albeit one with an incredible gift. As fans, we’ve watched him discover smoothies and Oreos, learn about being a parent, and get more comfortable in the spotlight. Some press conferences can be as fun as watching C-SPAN, but we’ve got Giannis stepping up to the podium and choking down a sip of Coors Light.

His candor isn’t limited to less serious topics. Recently, the Bucks star got real about his 2021 knee injury.

“What basically happened is that if my leg had hyperextended one more time,” Giannis told Sam Amick of The Athletic. “… I was done. There’s nothing to cut that was in there. It was torn already. It was out — [the piece that] protected me from an MCL or ACL [tear]. There’s a thing [in your leg] that protects you when you hyperextend [your knee] that doesn’t let you go all the way back. So that thing was torn. So if I had gone all the way back again, that’d be it for me.”

While the Bucks wanted him to wear a knee brace, the star refused. When asked why, he cited some personal experiences.

“I have this mentality like, with my mom and dad, when they were working back home [in Greece], they felt no pain, you know? Like, why? Why would I feel pain, you know? They didn’t feel pain. They didn’t complain. You know, I didn’t see my dad cry when he was here. I didn’t see him saying, ‘I’m in pain,’ I don’t see my mom saying ‘I’m in pain’ and stuff like that. Why would I say I’m in pain? That’s how I’m raised. That’s how I’m built. So even though that was the right thing to do — no. The way of my mindset, that wasn’t for me.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo speaking to Sam Amick

He, of course, didn’t don the knee brace and led the Milwaukee Bucks to the title. A happy ending, however, doesn’t change the potential problem with his choice.

Giannis Antetokounmpo shouldn’t be blamed for playing through the pain, but he shouldn’t be praised, either

In all fairness to the Greek Freak, it’s tough to really blame him for playing through the pain. Between his past experiences and his time as a professional athlete, he’s been more or less conditioned to prioritize getting the job done ahead of any potential consequences. Where we can be critical, however, is the overall narrative around his interview.

If you take a quick glance around the Internet (or look at the tweet that’s embedded above), you’ll see that Giannis’ actions are generally being praised as an act of dedication. While he was risking a long-term injury, the star player set all of that aside to help his team win the ultimate prize. In isolation, that’s understandable; as sports fans, it’s natural for us to view athletes as heroes who should be willing to do anything for the collective.

Normalizing that expectation is where things become problematic.

While every player is theoretically allowed to make whatever choice they want about their body and their career, problems arise when playing through pain becomes the expectation rather than the exception. At the risk of seeming somewhat insensitive toward Giannis, he would have been OK if he had suffered a serious knee injury. He’s got plenty of money in the bank and, given his star status, would probably have a job waiting for him the second he was able to play. Even if he struggled to return and ultimately hit free agency, someone would take a flier on him in the hopes that he could recapture a piece of his potential.

A less talented player, however, won’t have that luxury. If the eighth man on the bench, for example, pushes through the pain because that’s normal and expected, only to get hurt, his career would be in jeopardy. He probably lacks the name recognition and the talent return to the Association.

On the other side of the coin, think about how fans and media personalities react to players who look out for themselves. They’re either branded as greedy, soft, or some other less-than-complimentary adjective.

If you only care about on-court results, there’s also an argument that discretion is the better part of valor. While Antetokounmpo toughed it out and won the title, things could have ended in disaster. Had he torn a ligament, the Bucks would have not only lost the series but also potentially suffered a franchise-altering setback.

So how do we solve that problem? The easiest way is probably to shift the narrative and stop praising the act of playing while hurt.

While that might sound a bit aspirational and unrealistic, it’s not totally unprecedented. Take Gregory Campbell, the NHL player who famously (or infamously) finished his shift despite breaking his leg in pursuit of a Stanley Cup title. As documented by a 2013 CBS Sports post, he ultimately refused to autograph photos related to his injury, saying he didn’t want to “glorify” what happened.

Is that to say we should take Giannis to task for refusing to sit out or even don a knee brace? That’s probably not completely fair since, as he indirectly admitted, the star has been conditioned to believe that putting on a brave face to help the team is the right thing to do. (And, to be clear, there’s a difference between sacrificing for the greater good and making an ill-advised decision in an attempt to help.)

As sports fans, it’s easy to look at a player like Antetokounmpo pushing through an injury to win a championship and view him as the Platonic ideal of what a pro athlete should be. By doing that, though, we’re all collectively setting an unfair standard for what’s expected behavior.

No one should have to play hurt for fear of being branded “soft” or looking like they’ve let the team down. Pro athletes, like it or not, are people, too. It’s time to treat them as such.