Pro Football - the Maiming Game
Weisman, Jacob, The Nation
The Super Bowl, our national Circus Maximus, is upon us once again. But, alas, the tedious, two-week run-up to that organized mayhem on January 26 can leave the dedicated football fan fidgeting like a benched quarterback. Fortunately, football sells its violence in many ways. Several videos produced by the National Football League can help the aficionado fight withdrawal and keep his insanity while awaiting Super Bowl XXVI; these tapes include The NFL's Greatest Hits, Thunder and Destruction and The NFL's Crunch Course.
Crunch Course begins with the frozen image of Joe Theismann poised to throw. Beneath the Washington Redskins' former quarterback are these words from the late owner-coach, George Halas: "Pro football will always be a game of hitting." The frame unfreezes. Theismann lifts his arm to pass and is indeed hit, brought down from his blind side by Mike Davis, a blitzing safety on the Oakland Raiders. Next we see Ron Jaworski, of the Philadelphia Eagles, get leveled by a Chicago Bears defender. Again and again, quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs get nailed. "It's like swinging a golf club," explains Sam Wyche, former head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. "If the club is not reflexing at the right moment, you're not going to get quite the distance on the ball; but if you hit into a guy and uncoil at the right moment, you explode through him." Next we see Dick Butkus, a former linebacker for the Bears, sitting on the sidelines, hand bandaged, fingers dripping blood. Later, he stares into the camera and observes of the film Hush Hush . . . Sweet Charlotte, "I got kind of a charge when that head came rolling down the stairs."
Theismann fumbled the ball but survived his encounter with Mike Davis. However, in 1985 Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants hit him with a savage tackle that broke his right leg and ended his career. That play isn't included in Crunch Course, but we see lots of Taylor in other situations. Play after play, he is reletless: pushing aside blockers, spinning away from double teams, clawing his way toward the quarterback. At one point he taunts Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham. "You mine, baby, you mine," he says, pointing. Later he tells a teammate, "Let's go out there like a bunch of crazed dogs and have some fun."
In 1905, before the days of protective padding and hard helments, football was on the verge of being abolished after twenty-three deaths resulted from play that year. Instead, the forward pass and the ten-yard rule for first downs were introduced to open up the game, thus making it safer. The innovations may have worked to some extent in the leather helment era, but they fall far short today. According to a 1989 study conducted by two Ball State University professors, Beverly Pitts and Mark Popovich, 66 percent of N.F.L. players who played after 1970 had some form of debilitating injury when they retired.
"It's not the exception, it's the rule," says Leigh Steinberg, an agent representing more than seventy players in the N.F.L. "Every player I represent is injured to some extent in every single game." Ten years ago, Steinberg represented three first-round draft choices. None are still in football. Kenny Easley suffered degenerative kidney damage, Curt Marsh had four back operations that have taken inches off his spine and Neil Lomax ended up having his hip replaced.
On November 24 Broderick Thomas, a linebacker with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, felled the Giants' Jeff Hostetler, fracturing three of the quarterback's vertebrae and putting him out for the rest of the season. Luckily, he suffered no neurological damage, as did Mike Utley the Sunday before. A Detroit Lions guard, the 6-feet-6-inch, 290-pound Utley landed on his head in a game against the Los Angeles Rams. "When he rolled over on the ground," said David Rocker, the rookie defensive tackle who had blocked Utley, "I saw his eyes moving but his body wasn't moving. …