SALT LAKE CITY — The National Football League continues to tweak its rules in an effort to curb injuries, and yet the injuries keep coming. Is it possible the league has failed to identify or recognize the real culprit? (Hint: drugs.)
First, the carnage: Even by the NFL’s gladiator-like standards, last weekend was brutal. Americans are used to it, but imagine the reaction of someone watching football for the first time Sunday when the games were stopped repeatedly so another body could be carried or helped from the field.
The league’s best and most visible player, J.J. Watt, sustained a broken leg in Game 5 — this after missing the last 13 games of 2016 with a back injury. The team’s other defensive end, Whitney Mercilus, also left the game with a torn pectoral muscle and is out for the year.
The league’s best tight end, Travis Kelce (sorry, Rob Gronkowski), was knocked out of the game with a concussion.
The league’s most talented receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., broke an ankle. He was one of three Giants receivers to leave Sunday’s game with an injury (three of the four are out for the year). The Giants have one healthy receiver still standing.
Injuries also claimed Belal Powell, Chris Conley, Lane Johnson, Kevin King, Davante Parker, Haloti Ngata, Terrance West, Charles Clay, and both of the Bengals’ cornerbacks, Dre Kirkpatrick and Adams Jones.
This doesn’t even count all of Sunday’s injured, nor the players who already were injured, among them Eric Berry, Tyler Eifert, Jaguars receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson, quarterbacks Sam Bradford (just returned to action), Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr, star cornerback Josh Norman, Packers running back Ty Montgomery and his backup Jamaal Williams, rookie star running back Dalvin Cook, Falcons’ receivers Mohamed Sanu and Julio Jones, the Seahawks’ rising young running back Chris Carson, Cowboys star linebacker Sean Lee, and Gronkowski.
In recent years the league has adopted rules designed to offer more protection to the players — targeting penalties, quarterback slides, banning the hitting of defenseless players, launching and head shots, etc. There has even been talk of eliminating the three-point stance.
But football has been played the same way for decades. The only thing that has changed is the players. They have gotten much bigger, and that is a difficult problem for the league to address.
Associated Press reported that in 1970 there was only one 300-pound player in the NFL. There were still only three of them in 1980, but then their numbers increased dramatically — 94 in 1990, 301 in 2000, 394 in 2009 and 532 when training camp opened in 2010. In a study of NFL draft picks conducted by Alex Bresler for Aragorn.org, the average weight of NFL offensive and defensive linemen in 1970 was 253. Business Insider reported that the average NFL offensive lineman in 2015 was 312 pounds, and that among the 159 who started at least four games the previous year only 23 weighed less than 300 pounds and 39 weighed at least 320.
This far outstrips the growth rate for the American population. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that since the 1980s and early 1990s Americans have added 15 pounds, but are no taller.
Not only are players heavier, they are faster. Now place them on the harder (and, hence, faster) synthetic turf and you have human missiles. It’s physics — mass x acceleration = force on an object. Players have essentially outgrown the game and shrunk the 100-yard x 53 1/3-yard field. They cover much more turf than they used to, and they hit harder.
So, the question: How have players gotten so big? Yes, training protocols have improved, but it’s difficult to believe that performance-enhancing drugs aren’t a huge factor. Human growth hormone and anabolic steroids build muscle and create heavier and faster players.
If you’re one of those who repeat the party line — But most of them pass the drug tests so they must be clean — then you haven’t been paying attention. PED users rarely get caught (Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones never failed hundreds of drug tests). Former players report wide use of doping in football (in 2005, Jim Haslett, estimated half the league was taking PEDs in the 1980s, and in 2015 Bleacher Reporter quoted a player saying “HGH is the big problem. For the past four or five years, the league has been almost overrun by HGH.”).
It doesn’t make sense that track and field athletes, cyclists and even baseball players have been busted for PEDs so frequently and yet relatively few NFL players fail a drug test. Football players have the most to gain from PEDs given the premium placed on size.
As New York Yankee co-owner Hank Steinbrenner once said, “I don’t like baseball being singled out. Everybody that knows sports knows football is tailor-made for performance-enhancing drugs. I don’t know how they managed to skate by. It irritates me. Don’t tell me it’s not more prevalent. The number (of dopers) in football is at least twice as many. Look at the size and speed of those players.”
In 2014, the NFL bragged of its revised testing procedures, but an anonymous player told Bleacher Report, “The new testing procedures aren’t catching anyone, because players know there is almost no way to get caught.”
The NFL does not meet the strict standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees the Olympic sports. Instead, the NFL oversees its own testing program. Penn State professor Charles Yesalis, an anti-doping expert, likens that to the fox guarding the hen house.
“They put in place something that gives them plausible deniability without hurting what their customers want,” Yesalis told The San Diego Tribune. “ This is all about business ”
WADA CEO Travis Tygart told the Tribune it was a conflict of interest — “It’s hard to police and promote at the same time.”
If the NFL really wants to get serious about doing more to protect its players’ health short of turning the game into a flag league, it would turn its testing over to WADA and let the organization apply the same rigorous standards it does to Olympic sports.