I'm a reader of the New England Journal of Medicine, and occasionally I get to Sportsmedicine magazine. But during football season, I pass them up. I go to the sports pages for my medical news.
Mondays and Tuesdays are heavy days. The lead sports story in The Washington Post one recent Tuesday, reading like notes from the emergency room, told of players with broken thumbs, fractured shoulders, sprained knees, ankle sprains and thigh strains.
The next week, The New York Times reported that 16 New York Jets --"more than a third of the players in action" the day before--"received medical treatment for aches and pains." That Tuesday, a headline read: "Knee Surgery Puts Bryant Out for Season." The story told of another player sidelined for an "arthroscopic surgical procedure."
I am getting accustomed to these disaster reports from the anatomical world. But I wonder: is anyone telling children, who are overdosed on the glamorization of televised football, that this collision sport is a boneheap of punishment?
Football, as a number of unpublicized studies report, is a high injury sport. The hospitalization rate for football injuries is almost three times higher than for basketball. As the level of competition rises, so does the damage. Dr. James Wood, an orthopedic surgeon at the Sports Injury Clinic in San Francisco, notes that "for every 100,000 kids playing high school football, nearly 50 percent are injured sometime during the season. What's even worse is that for every 100 college football players, there are 130 injuries." Among pros, almost no players have an injury-free season.
Defenders of football say that it's too bad if people like me reject the violence of their game. They argue two points: that pain is elemental to many sports and that no one is forced to play football.
The first argument is weak because it suggests that a tackle or guard about to blindside a charging fullback is a discriminating being. He isn't. Opponents are hit as crushingly as possible, with no thought given to the injury- potential of the impact. It is true that linesmen are not paid for how many shoulders or legs of their opponents they fracture. But they are paid to be "hard-hitters." In no other team sport does the power of the collision have more to do with winning than football. In no other sport, except boxing and cockfighting, is the line between viciousness and force as thin.
The voluntariness of football is only partly true. How many children of low- income families, looking for a griphold on the thin ladder of success, would "volunteer" for the violence of high school football if there were as many lures--full scholarships and money deals--for college sports like golf, tennis or track and field?
How many high school boys would go out for football if television, with saturation coverage, didn't hype the sport with the subliminal message that this is high macho?
How many would play if sportswriters paid less attention to up-and-coming sensations and more to down-and- going ex-players like Jim Otto? He is the former Oakland Raiders center who in 15 years had 12 nose breaks, 200 face stitches, 10 finger breaks, nine knee operations and is now, at 43, a near cripple, classified as permanently disabled and facing a leg amputation at the knee. Not all boys who play football will end up a Jim Otto. But if the statistics mean anything, they will be closer to his experiences than to those, say, of this week's golden-boy fullback. It is among the impressionable young that "the real carnage" occurs, writes Leonard Koppett in "Sports Illusion, Sports Reality," published this month. "How do we measure the true social cost of a thousand broken legs in the wake of Tony Dorsett's latest exciting touchdown run? Little attention is paid to this kind of fallout from our fascination as fans, but it constitutes a great big net minus."
Someone trying to restore balance is Walter Sullivan, the Catholic bishop of Richmond. He asked two weeks ago that football be dropped in Virginia's Catholic grade and high schools. Why should we teach youngsters to "knock heads," said Sullivan, "especially if we believe in respect for life."
I wish the good bishop, instead of asking that football be dropped, had ordered it. On this issue, some authoritarianism is in order. It would be something that every growling football coach could respect: a hard hit.