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Scott Ostler

Act of Rozelle Could Solve Big Problem

November 12, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

The doctor who sawed and sewed on Joe Montana's back two months ago said just the other day that Montana was crazy to be playing football again. The doctor added, in effect, that anyone who plays football is crazy.

This came as no news flash to the 1,200 current members of National Football League clubs. Nobody is really sure what motivates a person to volunteer each Sunday for participation in the loosely organized gang rumble known as a pro football game. But scientists are pretty sure the determining factor has nothing to do with logic or sound reasoning, or a careful study of actuarial tables.

Injury risk-wise, you're better off riding a motorized skateboard on the freeway, without kneepads.

Discussing the Montana case around the office Monday morning, two Times sports staffers mentioned that maybe it's time to ban football. The players are growing too big, the injuries are becoming too frequent and too gruesome.

Now, two guys--even two literate and knowledgeable fellows as these--expressing an opinion doesn't exactly constitute a national grass-roots movement to stamp out the sport, but both these people are football fans, and one is a football writer.

The idea of banning football is ridiculous, of course. It would be easier to ban sex, if only because as a sport, sex does not lend itself well to wagering.

Besides, the American attitude toward football is a lot like the old German attitude toward war, that it is the highest expression of man.

"That war should ever be banished from the world is a hope not only absurd, but profoundly immoral," said Heinrich von Treitschke, a University of Berlin professor, late in the 19th Century. "It would involve the atrophy of many of the essential and sublime forces of the human soul."

Lyle Alzado couldn't have said it better.

The problem is that while we are constantly striving to limit the scope of war's potential human destruction, we are going in the opposite direction in football. We are steadily building larger players and more dangerous fields for them to play on. We like to watch huge guys smack one another around and break things.

If they happen to blow out knees and necks and spleens and an occasional spinal column in the process, hey, that's show biz. Exit stretcher crew. Enter next gladiator.

Who's to blame, and what can be done? Answers: Pete Rozelle, and plenty.

As pointed out by pro football writer Paul Zimmerman in Sports Illustrated, the NFL has made little or no effort to limit the spread of, among other evils, artificial turf and artificial muscles.

The artificial muscles are built by steroids. Times writer John Weyler wrote several weeks ago that an NFL player phoned Rozelle last off-season and pleaded with the commissioner to institute steroid testing. According to the player, Bill Fralic of the Atlanta Falcons, Rozelle said he'd just become aware of the problem.

Quickly, somebody please alert Rozelle to the potential dangers of cigarette smoking and hydrogen dirigible travel.

A former NFL lineman I know tells me steroids are a bigger problem in the NFL than cocaine. By artificially inflating their bodies, a very widespread practice in the NFL, players risk long-term health problems, to themselves and to the people with whom they collide on the football field.

The same ex-lineman believes that the NFL has cracked down hard on cocaine because coke is glamorous. Coke makes a real nice crusade, winning the admiration and support of the public. A wonderful public relations campaign.

Rozelle could stamp out steroid use by supper time tonight if he chose to do so. Who would support the move? Every player who has been driven to steroid use in order to keep up with the Joneses. Who would oppose the move? Every player whose football career depends upon chemically enhanced size and strength. Maybe it would be terribly unfair, but by banning steroids, what we would be doing would be rewarding athletic ability and hard work.

Unlike cocaine testing, which is considered by many athletes to be dehumanizing, steroid testing would be re -humanizing.

While we're at it, it might even be a good idea to slap a weight limit on NFL players. About 260 should do it. If steroids are banned, most of the league's bloated monsters will shrivel up to about that size anyway.

I don't want to sissify the league, but even bullfighting has rules to limit the gore and pain of its larger participants.

The 300-pound lineman is currently in vogue in the NFL. If nothing is done, the 400-pounder, with 4.5 speed, is just around the corner. Soon the playing fields will have to be widened, and so will the stretchers.

Time to act, Pete. A lot of crazy guys are counting on you.

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