Injury analyst Bell on concussions, trends, and her unique path to ESPN
There is no offseason for sports injuries.
Stephania Bell, ESPN’s injury analyst and an ESPN.com senior writer, is constantly on the network’s platforms providing insights into what ails athletes.
A physical therapist who is a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist and a certified strength and conditioning specialist, Bell also is an avid fantasy sports player and contributes heavily to ESPN Fantasy. Her love of sports helped pave her path to ESPN.
Front Row asked Bell about sports injury trends, insight into how she does her job, and “The Curse of Stephania Bell.”
With the attention being drawn to concussions, where would you want to see the leagues’ focus be placed: Education; prevention; equipment; something else?
If I had to choose, then education would come first and foremost and the reason is simple: Everything else flows forward from there. The increased public discourse regarding concussions, which is largely due to happenings within the NFL, is a positive step. People understandably have many questions not only about the condition itself but also regarding safety in sports participation. Unfortunately, medicine doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to concussions but we continue to learn more daily. As medical knowledge and understanding of concussion recognition and management grows, that information can be shared with the public to help develop better teaching and training programs for coaches, parents and athletes as well as enhancements in the area of prevention and treatment. The more educated we all become on this emotionally-charged topic, the more rational and informed decisions we will make going forward.
How do you push the envelope and provide unique insights to fans?
I get ideas daily. They might come from something I see on air, something I read or something suggested by someone else. It usually starts with a story I feel passionately about which I think warrants a deeper look. The Brian Roberts piece [a Sept. 2011 Outside The Lines feature about the MLB player's problems with concussions] came out of a desire for me to show that there are some therapies that seem to be helping people with certain types of concussive injuries. We have such a unique platform here to be able to provide accurate, credible information in an audience-pleasing way — via the stories of athletes — and I’m just thrilled to be a part of it.
Can you recall a short time span with so many severe injuries suffered by superstars: Derrick Rose in the NBA, Terrell Suggs in the NFL and Mariano Rivera in baseball? What’s it been like reporting on so many situations?
I’m sure there has been something similar –injuries are one constant amongst all sports — but it certainly feels unique. When you’re in the thick of such a cluster of devastating blows to star players in the major sports, it’s a bit overwhelming. As a physical therapist, I know what a long, hard road the recovery process can be. I sympathize with the pain and frustration the player and the team experience. As a sports fan, I sympathize with the loss the fans experience.
How much about an injury do you need to know before you can analyze a situation and provide insight for fans?
Without examining the athlete or having direct access to medical information, the analysis is based on combining my experience treating athletes for nearly two decades with the information that is provided to the media. I also maintain relationships with many of my sports medicine colleagues who, without compromising patient confidentiality, provide insight into general aspects of how they are currently managing various types of injuries (which constantly evolves as medicine continues to evolve). I stay active in my profession by maintaining my licensure and board certification, participating in conferences and seminars and keeping up with related research. And I watch a lot of sports. Even when treating an athlete it’s impossible to predict the outcome following an injury with certainty so informed analysis, even from a distance, can be reasonably accurate.
What kind of feedback do you get from fans, teams, athletes about your report?
I find that teams, coaches and athletes are largely supportive since they know I take care to be as accurate as possible and steer away from speculation. Fans are very appreciative of the insight, although I admit to feeling like the Grim Reaper sometimes when delivering news about injured players. In fact, my nickname — Stephie Bad News — on our Fantasy Football and Baseball podcasts came from a listener. I am also apparently responsible for “The Curse of Stephania Bell,” passed on to players with whom I come in contact or draft on my fantasy team. If they get hurt and I have either spoken with them or drafted them, I do get held accountable by the fans, no matter how much I plead innocent.
How candid do you think teams and athletes are about injuries?
It’s quite variable. Some teams shield as much information from the public as possible and coach their athletes to do the same. Others are fairly transparent. Most teams will say as little as possible when it comes to injuries, especially timetables for return, so as not to have to backtrack later if circumstances change.
What trends in injuries or treatments of injuries have you noticed in recent years?
As our understanding of tissue healing advances, our rehab guidelines improve. As a result, therapy is more aggressive and players are returning to sports sooner from big procedures like ACL reconstruction and Tommy John surgery. Biologic therapies (platelet-rich-plasma injections and stem cell therapies) are becoming more prevalent and this is likely to be where we see the biggest advances in sports medicine over the next decade. And then there is our vastly improved recognition of concussion injuries. There is still much to learn on that front but we are making strides.
How did you make the transition from physical therapist to ESPN?
The door opened through my participation in fantasy football. When I realized everyone in my league was looking to me for more detailed injury information to gain a competitive advantage, I knew there was something there. I began by writing a small column; it led to magazine and radio work and then caught the attention of ESPN. It sounds like such a huge leap, but being a French Literature major [at Princeton] and holding a teaching position in a graduate PT program [at Kansas] helped prepare me for both writing and speaking. Still, as one of the legions of fans who has some version of ESPN on around the clock, I sometimes pinch myself that I’m actually here.