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Thursday, October 18, 2007

So You Want Your Son to Play Football?

For a long time?


Read this.

It's a good piece from today's Philadelphia Inquirer about Kevin Turner, a former NFL fullback who played a while for the Eagles. It talks about the physical toll football takes on young men, especially on those who play professionally.

If you work in a company, most likely the most physical activity you'll engage in is for the company softball team, picking up a box that weighs 20 pounds or accidentally bumping into the side of your desk, where it comes to a point, and getting a bruise that will last a week.

If your work means you're an elite professional football player, you're hefting weights, running hard or colliding frequently. Now, truth be told, we don't see the stories of former football players who are in great health. There are several reasons for this. First, unless they've gained success in a different endeavor later in life or are written about in a "where are they now?" piece, they're just not newsworthy, because that's the way society is. Our journalists are more prone to write about the train wrecks than trains, period, because the former sell papers. Second, some probably would argue that very healthy former NFL players just don't exist.

Is there a former NFL player who played for more than 4 years who didn't have -- during his football career spanning the Pee Wee leagues through the NFL -- surgery, a concussion, a broken bone or a bad sprain? It's hard to believe that such a player exists. Not to mention, of course, stingers, contusions, lacerations, etc. Most, my surmise is, have suffered a combination of all of the above. Taken together with the continuous pounding and at times overuse of muscle groups, you have a recipe for a long-term problem -- bad to awful post-football health.

So what are the solutions? Here are a few to think about:

1. The NFL should sponsor research into the types of therapies that help players recover more quickly and help heal their injuries better and faster. For example, I remember reading about James Laurinaitis, the Ohio State linebacker, who sleeps in the type of oxygen chamber that Terrell Owens and many other professional athletes use. His reasoning: you don't feel the toll of the hitting for more than a day after you sleep in this oxygen tent. If that feeling, as it were, can be substantiated, why don't NFL teams spent the half a million required to give those to each player on the team? Just a thought. Additionally, there's been a ton of talk on the illegal use of steroids and HGH. Performance enhancing drugs are a taboo subject, but suppose clinicians determined that a selective, prescribed use of HGH during the season could help players recover more quickly and lead them to a longer, healthier lives post-football. How would the NFL treat that information?

After all, the NFL is partially a crap shoot, isn't it? The teams with the fewest injuries have the best shot to get to the playoffs and beyond. At any rate, good therapies should be investigated -- soon and hard.

Because stories like Kevin Turner's are becoming more and more frequent (and there are probably plenty of others with maladies who do not get written about).

2. The other point I'll make is about equipment. Right now, many players wear minimal equipment because they don't want to get slowed down by it. That's right, for some it's just a helmet and shoulder pads, and the shoulder pads are sometimes pretty small. Forget the neck, hip, thigh and kneepads. Remember the scene in Invincible where Vince Papale wanted to show Dick Vermeil he was fast enough to cover kicks? What did he do? He jettisoned a lot of his padding.

First, should the NFL legislate what padding players should be required to wear? It's ironic that the uniform police will fine you for shirts not being tucked in or for wearing unsanctioned gear, but not for not wearing injury-saving gear. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Second, I'd commission UnderArmour, DuPont (makers of Kevlar) and others (including those who make airbags for cars) to come up with the ultimate in unitard uniforms. These uniforms will have a sleek look to them, be made of lightweight material, but provide a lot of cushion to a player upon impact. No, the player's uni won't inflate like the Michelin Man, but he'll have a lot more cushion than he did before. That uniform is coming, folks, but perhaps not for 10-15 years. It's too good an idea not to invest in.

Third, I'd also have some fitness requirements in the NFL. Put simply, no sumo wrestlers, no obese players, and I'd do so before Congress makes obesity a protected category under the ADA. Why? Because some of these guys aren't healthy, don't look healthy, and are carrying around too much weight in the long term. By existing in the NFL, they create bad habits in others. Everyone else feels he has to get big, perhaps to the point of overdoing it in the weight room. And for what? To keep up with the "run stuffer" who isn't required to do anything more than perhaps run three yards and hold his own for say three seconds? This particular point, though, would be hard to enforce.

At any rate, I hope it's not the case that when society looks back on football fifty years hence, they aren't questioning it's popularity the way many question boxing's now. Boxing was extremely popular 50 years go, only to fall off the proverbial table because of shady promoters and questionable judging, even at the Olympics (recall the farce that befell Roy Jones, Jr.). Thankfully, football isn't a judged sport, but it's pretty brutal. A landscape littered with wrecked lives of former players might ultimately give society cause for more than the occasional pause it does now.

To avoid that, the NFL needs to act swifty in all sorts of research and development activities to ensure a better and much safer environment for the guys who play the game.

They deserve it, because most of them do not make superstar money.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those are terrific recommendations. For another example of the tragic effects football can have on players' lives (and links to a ton of related material), take a look at the website of the Ralph Wenzel Trust.

9:56 AM  

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