Commentary

Sports Illustrated/WebMD 'Comeback' Debut Is A Dud

Last year at this time, I was hobbling to and fro in an unforgiving brace that stretched from hip to ankle. The injury that prompted its presence was a partially torn quadriceps tendon, which occurred sometime between March and September 2014. It rendered driving, and other activities in which my right leg was bent at the knee, slightly uncomfortable. The diagnosis still came as a surprise, given that I’d been participating in myusualregimenofactivities without any real limitation. Happily, after two months in the brace and some physical therapy, I felt better and returned to my labor in the salt mines.

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So yeah, I’m more than glancingly familiar with heroic, magnificent comebacks from the abyss of physical despair. I bring this up not just because I want every reader of this column to know that I am a miraculous specimen of athletic-recuperative marvel, but because it informs my consumption of this week’s column subject, the Sports Illustrated/WebMD collaboration “The Comeback: Stories of Resilience.”

I was tipped to the series’ existence via a periodical containing miscellaneous pieces and often illustrated (a “magazine”). Even as the current product has little in common with the one I used to devour the second it landed in my parents’ mailbox, I am incapable of shaking the habit of reading Sports Illustrated every week. I admire that SI continues to push back against the prevailing media headwinds -- and quite enjoy its online “The MMQB” offshoot and sports-media wonkery -- but it’s impossible for a weekly publication to feel like anything other than a relic when it finally arrives. Way to up the convenience and timeliness ante, Internet.

“The Comeback,” it would seem, is the next in a series of efforts to dimensionalize SI’s content for today’s media environment. The tie-in with WebMD adds eyeballs; the series’ central conceit (double-inspiring resiliencyism in the face of insurmountably imposing-ish odds!) adds appeal to audiences beyond the sports-dork core. But judging by its shallow first offering, “The Comeback” makes my tale of tendon redemption seem like something out of the Louis Zamperini biography by comparison.

Via interviews, photos and the requisite slo-mo footage, the episode recaps Arizona QB Carson Palmer’s comeback from a second crippling knee injury. A teammate proclaims that Palmer is “the hardest worker [he’s] been around when the lights aren’t on”; the scribe who wrote the recent SI profile on Palmer chimes in that the quarterback is “at the top of his game.” Palmer himself advances the redemption narrative with comments about playing (or, rather, not playing) the why-me card.

Is there anything in that last paragraph that prompts a reaction of “oh yeah -- I gotta get me some of that sweet ‘Comeback’ action?” Even before ESPN revitalized the sports documentary with “30 for 30” and its Grantland shorts, sports-liking-type people had long since been conditioned to expect more from the genre. Most crucially, there needs to be a story worth telling. In this instance, there isn’t one -- or if there is, it’s so deeply buried beneath the work-hard-and-live-right-and-good-things-will-follow platitudes as to be unrecognizable.

(Speaking of unrecognizable: If WebMD contributed anything to this video, one would be hard-pressed to identify it. There are no informed physician commentaries, no medical diagrams, nothing. Why, it’s as if their experts didn’t personally participate in either of the surgeries!)

It’s not an unfamiliar arc. Plenty of athletes tear up a knee -- or an elbow, or a shoulder, or an Achilles -- and return as a better/different/humbled version of themselves. What we’re missing here is a compelling reason that Palmer’s trauma and recovery is distinct in some way. From the talking-head quotes, I sense that what SI and WebMD were going for is something along the lines of “he’s come back to play at a really high level.” Okay, great. So what made this possible?

If the answer is “Palmer’s work ethic and general decency as a human being,” which is what “The Comeback” posits, then you’ve chosen a boring subject. For this particular case to be even mildly interesting, the creators would’ve had to delve into the psychic trauma associated with the injuries. Two ruinous knee explosions, both occurring at a point when Palmer’s team was poised to contend for a title -- how did it FEEEEEEL, man? How do you reconcile that with your belief in a just universe? What did you think when pundits said you were cooked? “The Comeback” doesn’t come within 50 meters -- that’s fancy European talk for “54.6807 yards” – of genuine insight.

As told, then, Palmer’s plight feels ordinary, at least within the context of what athletes deal with on a regular basis. If SI and WebMD couldn’t find more inspiring “stories of resilience,” they either didn’t look very hard or made a deliberate choice to kick off their series with a celebrated personality. Either way, this ain’t a promising start.

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