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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Football
See Inside April 2005

Eye off the Ball

Can football's ancillary antics possibly out-insult the game itself?
Steve Mirsky



FRANK VERONSKY
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Concussion, Arthritis, Torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament and The Pile.

It's football season--for me, anyway. True, this is the April issue, which coincides with the start of the baseball season, thank goodness. But I'm writing these words in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, so football is on my mind--specifically the way the game chews up and spits out the bodies of its participants, willing though they be.

There are two reasons I've been thinking about football and its injuries--Janet Jackson and Randy Moss. The Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl is now legendary. (I didn't see it myself, because anyone actually watching a Super Bowl halftime show has either lost the remote or is researching an anthropology doctoral thesis.) Congress rapidly organized hearings on Jackson's televised breast, clearly the greatest threat faced by our nation in a presidential election year. Irate congresswoman Heather Wilson of New Mexico quoted her young son, who allegedly called the incident "nasty."

Then, early in this season's pro football playoffs, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss taunted the Green Bay Packers crowd--he made-believe he was pulling down his pants and then wagged his booty at the fans. Announcer Joe Buck was especially livid, calling Moss's pantsomime "disgusting."

I recap the Jackson and Moss incidents that so outraged so many so that I can ask: Have you ever watched the actual game?

Force equals mass times acceleration, and football features a lot of massive guys violently accelerating into one another with devastating force. Researchers look at the effect of these forces at the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, a joint (perhaps the only intact joint in football) project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the National Football League Players Association. In an attempt to quantify the toll the game takes on its professional participants, the center surveyed more than 2,500 former players in 2001.

So here's what the game does to its players during the family-friendly part of the telecast. Of survey respondents, 62.5 percent had gotten at least one concussion. The average was two concussions. A quarter suffered three or more concussions. This last group has three times the normal risk of depression. They also have an elevated risk of the kind of cognitive impairment that often precedes full-blown Alzheimer's disease. Moving from neurology to orthopedics, 38 percent of ex-players have osteodegenerative arthritis. Former players between the ages of 25 and 54 have much higher rates of arthritis than regular guys the same ages. Twenty percent of players damaged their knees' anterior cruciate ligament, which can lead to permanent mobility problems.

Football players whose games are on artificial turf face an additional danger--rug burns. And burned players get antibiotic treatment at 10 times the rate of guys who don't get mauled on the carpet. All those drugs can lead to resistance--a study published in the February 3 New England Journal of Medicine found that in 2003 five St. Louis Rams who played on fake grass at home wound up with drug-resistant skin staph infections.

Further evidence of football's wholesome nature can be found in the January 31 issue of Sports Illustrated, which featured trenchant testimony by current pro players about what goes on inside a pile, where everyone is battling everyone else for the ball: "I've had guys go for the privates, guys try to put their elbow in my neck, guys reaching inside my helmet." "The go-to spots are the eyes and the family jewels." "Guys reach inside the face mask to gouge your eyes. But the biggest thing is the grabbing of the testicles. It is crazy." Indeed, it's nuts in there. But at least it's not nasty or disgusting.

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