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.