DEBATES over rankings are the lifeblood of sports.

The recent “Last Dance” documentary on the Chicago Bulls’ 1998 NBA title run has reignited the discussion over Michael Jordan’s status as the best basketball player ever—and whether LeBron James can surpass him. (Kareem Abdul–Jabbar and Bill Russell might have some thoughts on the subject as well.)

The GOAT debate isn’t limited to hoops. Tom Brady or Joe Montana? Babe Ruth, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron? (Or Barry Bonds, before or after the steroids?) Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe (or, in time, Alex Ovechkin)? Pele or Lionel Messi? Nearly every year, in every sport, fans argue over who deserves to be named most valuable player.

Here’s one opinion that should be difficult to dispute, though: Whenever the games resume after the coronavirus pause, the MVPs (most valuable personnel) for almost every team will be the trainers.

Long before the first kickoff, faceoff, tipoff or pitch, there’s going to be a rash of injuries. Athletes can’t take off three months (or more) and expect to jump back into high-level competition without setbacks.

Yes, the wealthiest professionals have personal gyms and even basketball courts in their homes. College and high school athletes have been inventive in their training techniques. Still, even with the best of intentions, it’s impossible to reproduce the intensity of organized team practices during individual workouts. Very few NHL players have been able to skate, and pools have been closed to even the most elite swimmers.

Whenever teams are allowed to reconvene—and that will vary depending on state regulations—there will be a sizable gap in athletes’ fitness levels. And given the fact that leagues and college conferences are feeling the financial pressure to resume play as soon as possible, it’s unlikely the training periods will be sufficient for everyone to reach top shape as they try to go from near-zero to 60 quickly.

So look for plenty of hamstring pulls and tweaks among football players, and increased risk of “Tommy John” elbow ligament tears and oblique strains in their baseball brethren. Achilles tendons can be ruptured by overexertion, often setting an athlete back for a year or more.

College presidents seem determined to try to start the football season on time before Labor Day, knowing it’s the 800-pound gorilla that helps pay for the rest of their athletic programs. Every summer, we hear stories of young football players struggling (and, tragically, sometimes dying) while training in the heat. They could be even vulnerable this year if schools try to expedite training camps.

And that doesn’t even account for athletes overtraining on their own. Back in March, when the lockdown was just beginning, one top local swimmer related a story of straining his muscles in weight training out of frustration over being unable to hit the pool.

Team trainers will have to deal with all of that on the front lines. And we haven’t even mentioned the inevitable chances of a resurgence of the coronavirus, which would put every member of an organization (including the trainers themselves) in jeopardy. Who will be the first people exposed to anyone who tests positive? Trainers.

We’re all beyond ready for some semblance of normalcy, and sports are a major part of that. We all look forward to enjoying our favorite games again.

But they’ll look different when they return. And it’s very likely that trainers will be even busier—and at greater risk—than they have been. Here’s a preemptive pat on the back—and a good-luck wish.

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

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