The Agony Must End

As injuries in the NFL continue at an unacceptable rate, a longtime student of pro football tells what has to be done
November 10, 1986

They are the assassins waiting behind the door in a dark room. They are pro football's unpredictable—yet only too predictable—curse. Injuries. As the fractures, concussions and bruises that play havoc with America's No. 1 sport struck down 183 NFL starters in the first half of the season, medical reports like these became commonplace:

•Two defensive backs, Anthony Young of Indianapolis and Tim Lewis of Green Bay, damaged nerves in their necks while making fairly routine tackles. They will never make any more. To do so would be to risk paralysis.

•On Oct. 26 the San Francisco 49ers fielded only 37 healthy players out of a possible 45 for their game with Green Bay.

•Dallas running back Tony Dorsett, after nine relatively injury-free years, missed three of his first eight games this season and hobbled through three more on an ailing knee.

•Two Kansas City Chiefs, linebacker Ken McAlister and wide receiver Anthony Hancock, underwent surgery after their knees buckled on artificial turf without having been hit.

•Before last weekend's games, 286 players were on the NFL's injured reserve lists.

•On Sunday, Cowboys quarterback Danny White suffered a broken right wrist after a blitz by the Giants' Carl Banks. He will probably miss the rest of the season.

•Five New England Patriots players were injured Sunday in a game against Atlanta. All-Pro linebacker Andre Tippett hurt a knee and may miss the rest of the season.

"Injuries," says Philip Rosenthal, the assistant director of New York's Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, "are inherent to football. It's the nature of the beast."

O.K., but where does it stop? When do we make the breakthrough and start reducing injuries? The average playing career, 4.6 years in 1983, is now 3.6 years. Speed has increased through natural selection and lighter equipment. Size has shown a natural gain, too, but it also has an unnatural side because of the anabolic steroids that are such a major part of the weight-training programs favored by a number of players.

Artificial turf abounds, and it's still as hated by the players as it was 21 years ago when the Houston Astrodome opened. Where's the end of it? Today's 240-pounder is a pumped-up 280, thanks to the steroids. In five years maybe he'll be 300, moving even faster, inflicting greater damage. Can medical science keep up with that? Or will the incidence of injury be even higher? It's time that the NFL takes a long look at the problem and steps in, before football becomes Rollerball.

Questionable and conflicting data from the league, the Players Association and the trainers make it hard to determine exact percentages on injuries and whether they're up a great deal, up only slightly or staying more or less level. One thing that's certain is that they're not declining, and this in itself is frightening. Modern equipment is supposedly safer, and rule changes meant to protect players from injuries have been adopted. Then why, in a world in which modern medicine has discovered how to transplant organs, are pro football players still getting hurt at the same rate as they were in the old days?

The medical breakthroughs in football have been curative, not preventive. For example, arthroscopic surgery can mend a wounded knee and have a player who once would have been out for the season back on the field in three weeks. Arthroscopy can diagnose a minute fracture that used to be called water on the knee. Medical science and the equipment people are in a race against the changing physics of pro football, and they're not winning. They can't gain any ground on the steroid labs, which are turning out bigger, artificially built-up athletes, who move at higher speeds on faster tracks, thanks to synthetic turf. The result is higher-speed collisions by larger people, a ferocity of hitting never before seen in football or any other sport.

"It used to be that you either had a good athlete or a big guy," Miami Dolphin trainer Bob Lundy says. "Now you have both."

"Some of the collisions I've seen are really severe," Dolphin coach Don Shula says. "I've been happy for quite a while to be on the sidelines. I'm not anxious to put on a uniform again. It's a tough game for everyone. Real tough."

There was no arthroscopic surgery in Shula's playing days in the early and mid-1950s. Not much surgery of any kind. Ice it down, tape it, get back in the game. Now when a guy goes down, he gets scoped. In three weeks he's ready. Then he goes down again.

Injuries are publicized most heavily when quarterbacks are hurt. On Sunday it was the Cowboys' White, who had already missed two games because of an injured hip. The quarterback thrashing is a constant. NFL figures show that after eight weeks of the '84 season there had been 41 different starting quarterbacks, 12 getting the call because of injury. Last year the midseason numbers were 40 and 11; this year they are 44 and 14.

So the damage goes on, week after week, year after year. What should be done? Steroids are a good place to start. Everybody hates them, everybody knows the long-range damage they can cause, and lots of players in the NFL use them—and don't admit it.

"That's about right," Los Angeles Raider defensive end Howie Long says. "At least 50 percent of the big guys. The offensive line—75 percent. Defensive line—40 percent, plus 35 percent of the linebackers. I don't know about the speed positions, but I've heard they're used there, too."

The dangers are threefold: No. 1, the long-range risks—cancers, urinary tract problems and other perils. No. 2, turning pro football into a game for artificially created giants, able to inflict great damage by their sheer mass. Danger No. 3 is that the artificial bulk causes more insidious injuries—muscle pulls and tendon strains that won't go away.

"Steroids are the worst problem in the NFL," says Indianapolis linebacker Johnie Cooks. "I just want to play football with the body the Lord gave me. Some of these guys we play are nothing but muscle. When you get hit by them, something has to go."

"Eighty percent of the time when a big guy tears a muscle, steroids are probably the reason why," Long says. "You put 50 pounds of muscle on a player, and he goes from a baggage carrier in the jungle to Tarzan, and he says, 'Wow, this is great!' But something has to give. You're putting too much muscle fiber on a body not designed for it.

"It's got to affect the joints and tendons, too. They're designed for your natural body, not the artificially created one. It's tampering, voodoo. You're either going to pay now or pay later."

Trainers around the league are slowly starting to realize he might be right. "I look with suspicion on some of those injuries when you can't determine how they happened," Saints trainer Dean Kleinschmidt says. "Steroids do strange things to your body. When a guy is pumped up on steroids, there's always a weak link, maybe an Achilles, maybe a patellar tendon."

Paul Sparling, one of the Cincinnati trainers, says, "If a player gets a funny little injury and takes a long time coming back, that's a real tip-off."

Solution: Attack anabolic steroids at the league level. A tough project. There hasn't been much concern about the question until recently. Steroids are not illegal unless they are obtained without a prescription. Testing is expensive. Each test costs about $100. O.K., it's worth it. Two spot checks for each player, every year, will cost a club about $10,000. Atlanta guard Bill Fralic, who last week admitted to "experimenting" with steroids for a few months when he was at Pitt, was so upset about the problem that during the off-season he called commissioner Pete Rozelle, urging him to begin regular steroid testing. "He said he was going to look into it and he'd just become aware of the problem," Fralic says.

Last summer Rozelle declared in an interview, "We're developing tests for steroids. We might even come out with it this year."

The feeling here is that any effective antisteroid effort must become part of the new Players Association contract to be negotiated after this season. The program will certainly have more bite and greater impact if the NFLPA enters into a joint endorsement with the league.

The Players Association has another duty to perform, if it wishes to do something about the injury problem. It has to take a serious position on artificial turf. Both the NFL-sponsored Stanford Research Institute International's 1974 study and the NCAA's 1982 study showed that the incidence of injury on synthetic turf was significantly higher than on grass. Since then, the NFL has offered no research to the contrary. Two weeks ago in Giants Stadium, the Jets lost two Pro Bowlers, noseguard Joe Klecko for a game and linebacker Lance Mehl for the season, because of noncontact injuries attributable to the artificial turf.

New, softer carpets, with better cushions, are more comfortable to fall on, but according to some people they also increase traction so that the cleats catch, causing knee injuries of the kind that befell Mehl and Klecko. "When the nap of the turf is new there's just too much traction," Cincinnati trainer Sparling says. "Archie Griffin tried to cut once on new turf and his foot stuck so firmly that he tore up his abdominal muscles in addition to his leg. He was out for the year."

The players' general hatred of artificial turf is well documented. Very few of them like fake grass, but in the last two contract sessions, while elimination of synthetics was a blanket demand, it quickly became a throwaway issue in former executive director Ed Garvey's negotiating strategy when the heavy matters came up—like money. Note to current association director Gene Upshaw: Worker safety is a top priority for a responsible union. It's not a throwaway.

San Francisco coach Bill Walsh's idea of a joint player-management committee to examine the carpets every year and replace them when necessary, or at least to eliminate the more unsafe aspects, is a good one. If a particular field proves to be unsafe no matter what is done, then bring back the grass in that particular stadium—assuming it's outdoors (sad to say, grass won't grow properly in the domes). Make that a keynote demand at the contract talks.

Cheap shots cause injuries, too. It's a fact of life in football—always was, always will be. The problem is that the people responsible for the cheap shots are now so much better equipped to deliver the crippling blow—again, the size and speed factors. The NFL takes a curious approach to cheap shots—protect the quarterback, protect the head. The cosmetic approach. Granted, quarterbacks must be protected from late hits, out-of-bounds hits and general mayhem, although one, Cleveland's Gary Danielson, curiously, says new provisions to protect his brethren are not needed. (He is recovering from a broken ankle suffered in the last exhibition game—against the Raiders.)

"I hope they don't pass new rules, because pressuring the quarterback is a part of the game that needs to be that way," he says.

Consistency in officiating is the key. Ben Dreith is a referee who has always tuned in to quarterback safety. "An old lady about it," Steeler coach Chuck Noll says. Pat Haggerty, though, froze when the Bears' William Perry slammed St. Louis's Neil Lomax to the ground on Aug. 23, drawing a $2,000 fine from the NFL but no flag from Haggerty.

But why protect only the quarterback? How about the running back who gets teed up by two tacklers and finished off by a third one, as Bengal fullback Bill Johnson was against the Steelers (he missed one game with a neck injury). That's the play that really needs the quick whistle.

The NFL's interpretation of anatomy is strange. Head shots are severely penalized, but the crippling blindsider to the knee is O.K., especially when linemen do it to each other. Most of the fights along the line of scrimmage start that way. Three seasons back the Cowboys' Too Tall Jones came up swinging—very rare behavior for this normally mild player—when the Oilers' rookie tackle Bruce Matthews sneaked behind him and tried to blow out his knee. Jones drew the flag. The Jets' Marty Lyons went to the mat with New England's Ron Wooten on a similar play last month. Offsetting penalties. Jump ball. The reason is that such tactics are technically legal. But it's time to take intent into account. Deliberate attempts to maim must be punished, even in cases in which a blow to the head (big NFL no-no) is not involved.

Solution: Pass a rule that says no cut-blocking unless you're faceup with a man. Clipping is illegal everywhere else on the field. It should be on the line, too.

But how about the illegal, career-ending type of injury? New Orleans safety Antonio Gibson put the Giants' Lionel Manuel out six weeks ago with a vicious knee shot in the end zone after a pass had sailed out of reach. No flag. No nothing. The intent? Well, you don't go to break up a pass at knee level, and there's nothing to be gained by a low tackle in the end zone. Instead of worrying about hands-to-the-face calls, this is the type of thing the NFL should go after.

Solution: Biblical justice. An eye-for-an-eye penalty. If a player puts someone out for a week with a blatantly illegal blow, suspend him for a week. If the other guy is out a month, suspend the culprit for a month, a year for a year, a career for a career. Think about it. If you want to eliminate the really bad cheap shots, then hand out really tough punishment.

The injured-reserve rule's limit of only five free moves, one of them for a player hurt in the exhibition season, is an injury producer, especially now that it's combined with the 1985 reduction in roster size from 49 to 45. When the 49ers could field only those 37 healthy players against the Packers, volunteers were needed. Linebacker Todd Shell, recovering from a pulled quadriceps muscle, was rushed back into action. He reinjured the muscle and may be out for the year.

The roster problem is caused by money. Cheapness forced the rosters down. But the game has changed. You need all the healthy, rested bodies you can get nowadays. Solution: Bring back the taxi squad, so players aren't forced to play till they break down. And so injured players aren't brought back too soon. People are stashed on injured reserve all the time now, anyway, so make honest men out of them. The NFL conducts spot physicals, but a player can be coached to say ouch at the right time. Create a taxi squad of seven players, like in the old days, like in the USFL, and allow fluidity of movement. But just so that the stashers won't stash players on injured reserve anyway, put a three-week limit on taxi players. Then you either have to activate them or subject them to 24-hour waivers. The old-liners will scream about the extra salaries, but look how much they're spending on the injured-reserve guys now, players who could come back but don't because the club is saving its moves.

Drastic problems need bold solutions. I have this to say:

To Gene Upshaw—get your union members a safe surface to play on. The owners won't do it; it's up to you. The membership deserves it.

To Pete Rozelle—begin steroid testing right now. Get rid of the freak show in the NFL.

To Art McNally—make sure your refs are working on the same page. Get them to recognize intent to maim and punish it accordingly.

To the Competition Committee—no more clipping. Don't build up the passing stats at the sake of people's knees.

To the owners—pay for a taxi squad. Spend some dough to preserve careers. Too many are being cut short. Just ask all those guys with casts on their knees and arms.

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TWO PHOTOSCARL SKALAKPain flooded the face of Allen Lyday (left) after the Houston safety strained ankle ligaments Sept. 28 in the Astrodome; he was forced to miss four games. TWO PHOTOSBILL SMITHQuarterbacks such as Chicago's McMahon regularly take a heavy pounding. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERAtlanta cornerback Bobby Butler broke his right leg in a game against San Francisco last month and was wheeled out for the year. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINWhite broke his right wrist against the Giants. PHOTOBUCK MILLERLewis's career ended when doctors said another injury could cause paralysis.

THE NUMBERS ADD UP TO A TERRIBLE TOLL

Danny White, Gary Hogeboom, Marcus Allen, Freeman McNeil, Tony Dorsett, Dan Fouts, Kenny Easley, Kelvin Bryant—all have missed games this season because of injuries. They were not alone, as this breakdown for the first eight games indicates.

TEAM

INJURED STARTERS

GAMES MISSED

INJURED RESERVE

NFC

Atlanta

4

10

8

Chicago

10

22

5

Dallas

5

13

13

Detroit

5

16

8

Green Bay

6

33

12

L.A. Rams

3

7

12

Minnesota

5

15

6

New Orleans

4

14

10

N.Y. Giants

6

26

7

Philadelphia

4

8

9

St. Louis

10

38

8

San Francisco

8

33

14

Tampa Bay

7

11

7

Washington

5

20

15

TOTALS

82

266

134

AFC

Buffalo

6

20

16

Cincinnati

4

7

6

Cleveland

5

31

16

Denver

5

18

10

Houston

5

22

6

Indianapolis

11

33

9

Kansas City

8

15

14

L.A. Raiders

6

15

13

Miami

5

27

10

New England

11

20

10

N.Y. Jets

13

38

11

Pittsburgh

12

39

11

San Diego

7

17

10

Seattle

3

6

10

TOTALS

101

308

152

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)