Knee injuries worry NFL players more than concussions

January 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

5NFL players worry about head injuries and their potential long-term consequences but not nearly as much as they worry about injuries to their legs, particularly their knees, that can end careers.

USA TODAY Sports surveyed 293 players on 20 NFL teams and asked what body part they were most concerned about injuring in a game: 46% said knees or other parts of their legs, 24% said head and neck and 26% said none.

The poll of players on active rosters was conducted from mid-December to early January and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. If requested, players were granted anonymity because they were concerned about fallout to their vote going public.

The results seem surprising given all of the emphasis the NFL and the culture at large have given to the life-altering dangers of concussions in recent years.

“Anytime you can avoid hits to the head it’s great,” Chicago Bears running back Michael Bush said, “but if you get hit in your knees, that’s your career.”

New York Jets defensive tackle Leger Douzable is another example of the here-and-now thinking of many players. He is more aware of head injuries but more fearful of a serious leg injury.

“For me, it’s the knee,” he said. “That’s the one that gets me, not the head or anything. A head injury? Don’t get me wrong, that’s bad. No one wants a concussion. But, here and now, a knee injury can be career-ending.”

The USA TODAY Sports survey also asked players whether NFL rule changes on hits to the head had made the game safer. Thirty-nine percent said they had, but a majority — 53% — said safety was about the same and 8% said the game was less safe.

“You can’t make a vicious game safe at the end of the day,” said Seattle Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond, whose team will meet the Denver Broncos on Sunday in the Super Bowl. “The nature of the game is violence, and it’s been about that since its creation.”

To many players, they are in a no-win situation — more rules to avoid hits to the head are causing more hits to the knees.

Several players pointed to the December play on which New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski took a knee-to-helmet hit when Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward came in low. Gronkowski tore his right anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in the violent collision.

“You saw what happened to Gronkowski,” Browns guard Shawn Lauvao said. “That’s because of a rule change. The way it was before, he would have just got hit in the head. He would have been there for the next play. It’s a Catch-22. I know they’re trying to make it safer, but some rules changes just take away” from the game.

Do the rule changes take away from the quality of play? More than half (53%) of the players surveyed said they thought the quality of NFL games remained essentially the same after the rule changes while 18% said games were better and 29% said they were worse.

Baltimore Ravens defensive end Chris Canty said the game had improved. “It’s the greatest game in the world, (and) viewership and the game’s popularity would support that,” he said.

New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said it was worse. “Fans come to see us bang, see us hit. Now it’s almost like flag football. I think it has changed the integrity of the game,” he said.

Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga said it was the same. “I still think the game is great. I really do,” he said. “I think the game is being played physical. I don’t think it’s backed down at all. There’s a lot of good collisions happening. You see it every Sunday, clean hits, good hits.

“So I don’t think it’s done anything to the game. I just think the NFL has taken steps to really hammer the player safety home. And I think all the guys appreciate that, and everybody wants to be looked after by the league.”

Except some players, mostly defensive ones, think the league is better at looking after some players than others.

“It’s all about protecting quarterbacks,” Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, I’m not disposable, but you guys are.’

“What about linemen diving at knees? What about chop blocks? It’s like, ‘Quarterbacks are the face of the league, and we’re not disposable. But you linemen are. We can get more of you. We can only get one or two Tom Bradys.'”

As Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall put it: “The game is safer for certain players: quarterbacks, receivers, I guess punters now. The rest of us still get the crap beat out of us.”

Jeff Miller, NFL senior vice president of health and safety policy, said, “We take those comments very seriously.” He said the NFL’s competition committee would examine the data to see whether those concerns were well placed and whether changes needed to be made.

Short-term view

Kevin Guskiewicz is research director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, among his many titles at the University of North Carolina, where he studies concussions and interviews hundreds of former pro and college players.

“These guys who are 50 and 60 years old tell me that when they were playing they were only concerned about next week, not 10 or 20 or 30 years down the road,” he said. “They were always thinking about the next game.”

That’s why Guskiewicz says he is not at all surprised to hear today’s players worry more about their knees than their heads. He thinks that’s a reflection of age and ambition more than a disregard for concussions.

“Players know that knee injuries can be season-ending or even career-ending,” he said. “We’re talking about their livelihoods. I don’t think they perceive concussions as season-ending or career-ending.”

Guskiewicz, who is chairman of an NFL subcommittee on safety equipment and rule changes, says players are much more tuned in to the dangers of concussions today than they were even a few years ago.

“I’ll bet if you asked that question about which body part 10 years ago, it would have been under 10% who said they worried about their heads,” Guskiewicz said. “I think we are making progress, but it still speaks to being ready next week or next season and not being quite ready to think about what they’ll be like at 45 or 55.”

Aman Alexander, chief executive officer of Sunstone Analytics, which provides medical and performance analytics to professional sports teams, agrees with players who note knee injuries are far more damaging to their earning potential than concussions. “It’s clear from analysis of NFL and NCAA injuries that players realize what injuries are likely to impact their ability to get drafted and perform,” Alexander said. “Meniscal and cartilage procedures and ACL reconstructions are statistically the most damaging injuries, especially at running back and offensive line positions, while concussions — even multiple concussions — have no statistical impact on the odds of getting drafted or performance.”

6Rise in ACL injuries?

Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald is among those who say tacklers aiming lower means more leg injuries.

“There’s less head trauma issues this year, with the emphasis on helmet-to-helmet contact,” he said. “But there’s been a lot of catastrophic injuries to lower extremities, like Dustin Keller, Rob Gronkowski, Randall Cobb. Hurt is hurt.”

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, NFL teams reported an average of 43 total ACL injuries a season from 2002 to ’12. Sunstone Analytics research says there have been 65 ACL injuries in the 2013 season, though that includes injuries suffered in spring practices, training camp and the preseason.

The NFL’s Miller said the league would study the data on injuries after the season. He cautioned against drawing conclusions not fully informed by the annual data.

“When we look at the number of injuries and the types of injuries and the breakdown as to when and where and how those injuries occur, that’s going to inform the decision-making in terms of the health and safety measures that we take,” he said. “So if it turns out that the concern that is expressed in your survey is well-founded as we look at the number at the end of the year, then that’s something we’re going to have to address.”

Miller said the league would look into player concerns expressed in the survey.

“We share the concern about all player health and safety issues,” he said. “Wherever the injuries occur, we need to look at those and move on and make the game safer where we can. The culture change at least around head injuries is going to take some time.”

Patriots running back Shane Vereen says the game is safer but can never really be safe.

“I think what you have to keep in mind is that it’s a physical game,” he said. “You’re going to get concussions regardless. You’re going to get shoulder injuries regardless of how good your shoulder pads are. It’s a physical game. We know coming in.”

Still, he thinks the new rules are good for the game and for the players.

“I think it’s safer as far as the concussions and the targeting of the head,” Vereen said. “I think that’s very important. Especially later down the line, where we’re seeing examples of where that can go bad. I think they’ve done a good job as far as keeping players’ head safe.”

Saints guard Jahri Evans believes that players must look out for each other. “I don’t want to go for somebody’s knees and risk getting him hurt just because he’s the guy across from me,” he said. “I hope he feels the same way about me.”

Evans said he understands why defensive backs go low “on a 280-pound tight end like Gronkowski because that’s the best way (the DB) knows to get him down. But as career professionals we’ve got to do a better job of looking out for our fellow pros. We need to do a better job of policing ourselves and protecting each other.”

Saints fullback Jed Collins is among the players who take the long view and worry more about concussions than other injuries.

“A bum shoulder or a blown-out knee is one thing,” he said, “but my brain is the thing that makes me who I am.”

Ravens tight end Dallas Clark seconded that. “There’s no known fix for the damage of concussions, the hits to the brain,” he said. “That’s a no-brainer.”

 

Tom Gola, NCAA rebounding leader and NBA All-Star, dies

January 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Philadelphia Warriors star Tom Gola drives during a 1956 NBA Finals game.

Tom Gola, the NCAA men’s basketball career rebounding leader with La Salle and a five-time NBA All-Star, died Sunday, wife Caroline told the Philadelphia Daily News. Gola was 81 years old.

On the court, Gola led La Salle to the 1952 NIT title and 1954 NCAA championship. As a senior in 1955, the 6-6 swingman led the Explorers to an NCAA Tournament runner-up appearance. In addition to his record 2,201 rebounds, Gola scored 2,462 points.

On the bench, Gola coached his alma mater for two seasons, compiling a 37-13 record from 1968-70. The 1969, which was suspended from postseason play, finished the year 23-1. Tom Gola Arena, where the Explorers play their home games, is named in his honor.

Gola spent 10 seasons in the NBA as a member of the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors and the New York Knicks. He helped lead the Warriors to an NBA title in 1956. The versatile swingman averaged 11.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game and was a five-time All-Star.

He was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976.

“On behalf of the entire Philadelphia 76ers organization, we are deeply saddened to learn of the unfortunate passing of La Salle basketball legend Tom Gola,” Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil said in a statement Sunday night. “Tom will always be fondly remembered for his dedication to this city and as an icon for his accomplishments both on and off the court.

“We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Caroline, and the entire Gola family during this difficult time.”

Tyler Batiste also writes for The News Journal of Wilmington, Del.

Indians to unveil Jim Thome statue in August

January 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Jim Thome hit 337 homers with the Indians.

Jim Thome hit 337 homers with the Indians.

When Jim Thome first started pointing his bat toward the pitcher, he never imagined that subtle movement would one day become immortalized.

The Indians announced Saturday that they will unveil a statue of Thome at Progressive Field on Aug. 2. Cleveland’s career leader in home runs will be forever honored with the statue, which depicts him standing in the batter’s box and directing his bat toward the mound. Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller is the only other Cleveland player to also be honored with a statue outside the ballpark.

Thome never could have imagined such a tribute, and is humbled by the salute.

“As a player, I don’t even want to say you dream of that,” said Thome, who retired in 2012 with 612 career homers. “When it happens, when the opportunity comes about, it’s humbling. It’s just a wonderful thing. My family is just ecstatic about it.”

One of Cleveland’s most popular players, Thome hit 337 homers with the Indians. He broke in with the club as a slender third baseman in 1991 and developed into one of baseball’s most feared hitters.

Early in his career, Cleveland minor league hitting coach Charlie Manuel, who went on to manage Philadelphia to a World Series title, suggested to Thome that he should point his bat at the pitcher to loosen him up before hitting.

Manuel got the idea after watching Robert Redford’s character Roy Hobbs in the film “The Natural.”

“Charlie had seen a clip of Roy Hobbs pointing the bat,” Thome said. “When I got in the box, I was tense, everything was tight. He wanted to create that relaxing feeling in the box for me and pointing the bat did that. It got my trigger ready to hit.”

Thome had two stints with the Indians. He played with the club from 1991-2002 before signing as a free agent with Philadelphia. He also played for the White Sox, Dodgers, Twins and Orioles before retiring in 2012.

Thome is currently working as a special assistant with the White Sox.

Deafness is a performance enhancer for Seahawks’ inspirational player

January 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

8Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman’s ability to block out all the noise that will engulf Sunday’s NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers at raucous CenturyLink Field has turned a perceived impairment into what he calls “a blessing.’’

Profoundly deaf since the age of three, Coleman didn’t pay attention to the naysayers who told him he would never realize his NFL dream. And Sunday, of all places he could have ended up, he’ll be impervious to a place known for its booming noise.

“It definitely seems ironic,’’ Coleman said. “I just consider it a blessing. I’m glad I’m on this side. But even if I wasn’t and I was somewhere else and I came here, all that noise would not be a factor to me(USA TODAY Sports)

Coleman, undrafted out of UCLA where he rushed for 765 yards and 11 touchdowns his senior season, wears hearing aids that allow him to hear “seven to eight’’ on a scale of one to 10 “on a good day.’’

Without his hearing aid, his hearing would be a “one.’’

So when he runs out of the CenturyLink tunnel Sunday, the core special teams player who has inspired his coaches and teammates by overcoming his hearing impairment won’t be rattled by the fury of the Seahawks’ trademark “12th man’’ which set a Guinness Book record this season for the league’s loudest crowd.

“I don’t need ear plugs. My hearing aids are my my ear plugs. I feel the vibration. I know they’re yelling. But it doesn’t hurt me as much as everybody else.’’

Coleman gets the play call in the huddle from quarterback Russell Wilson, who doesn’t wear his mouthpiece.

“He knows just to look at me,’’ Coleman said. “Everybody knows I lip read. They know when they talk to me, you have to look me in my eye. So all I do is look at him, read his lips and I’m good to go.’’

Coleman said the only issue he’s had of late was in Seattle’s 23-15 division-round win against the New Orleans Saints. Halfway through the second quarter, his hearing aid batteries started beeping warning that it was about to cut off.  He had an extra pair ready, which the Seahawks equipment man brought to him.

“I always make sure I have a backup plan,’’ Coleman said.

Coleman’s hearing impairment inspired a commercial for Duracell batteries that has drawn more than 5 million hits on YouTube with the powerful message, “I was picked on and I was picked last a lot,’’ Coleman said.“And it’s funny. Because I was always athletic. I was a fast kid, but hearing aids were always a factor especially when I was a young kid.

“They wanted to inspire children and dother people that whatever objects you have, regardless of any age, you can still achieve your dream.’’

What has been the reaction to his commercial?

“Everybody really liked it,’’ Coleman said. “They said, ‘Oh, my wife watched it. She was tearing, choking up, it almost made me cry.’

“I’m glad that it really got to everybody. And everybody truly now sees not only what I overcame, but they got the message out of it: That they can do whatever they want to do. ‘Don’t give up.’’

Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman played against Coleman in college at Stanford.

“His commercial is unbelievable,’’ Sherman told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s one of the best commercials I ever saw. It gives you goose bumps. He’s an outstanding person and player.

The 6-foot, 233 fullback with 1,840 yards and 19 career touchdowns at UCLA was initially signed by the Minnesota Vikings, but was released in training camp.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll saw something special in Coleman.

“He does his job impeccably well in all areas and everything that we ask of him,’’ Carroll said. “He’s a terrific-effort guy; he’s tough. He’s fast. He’s the third running back on game day when the roster sets up that way.

“So he’s been a fantastic part of the team and it’s been a really cool story. Not because he has issues. Because he’s made this team and he’s made a spot for himself and he’s claimed it.’’

Coleman laughed when asked if he ever used his lip reading skills to his advantage. Once during his freshman year at Troy High School, he tipped his head coach to what the opposing offense would run.

“It was more having fun, back in freshman year in high school,’’ he said. “Coach said, ‘What are they about to run?’

I said, ‘Outside sweep.’

“And then they changed the whole defense to stop them. Coaches use those play cards covering their mouths because of people like me.’’

Bell: Patriots find a new way to pour it on Colts

January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

4FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Another week, another deep hole.

But this time, there would be no miracle comeback for the Indianapolis Colts.

Just too much Tom Brady. And way too much LeGarrette Blount.

The New England Patriots built an early cushion, then commenced to steamroll the Colts at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night 43-22 to advance to a third consecutive AFC title game.

Blount tied a franchise playoff record with 166 rushing yards and set a postseason mark with four touchdowns – three on short blasts, then a 73-yard gallop in the fourth quarter – as part of a demonstration suggesting the Patriots have found a new formula to make up for all that has been lost in the passing game.

Brady, who extended his NFL record with an 18th career postseason win, didn’t throw a touchdown pass.

He didn’t have to.

New England scored a franchise-record six rushing TDs – more than the team has produced in any game, regular season or postseason.

Nightengale: Big win for MLB, great day for the game

January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

2Major League Baseball’s drug testing policy has been kicked around, slapped, and mocked in the past decade.

So who can blame the drug policy lords for turning their 345 Park Avenue office into Mardi Gras on Saturday morning with the news that Alex Rodriguez will be suspended for the entire 2014 season?

Arbitrator Fredric Horowitz may have shaved the original 211-game suspension to 162 games, but Commissioner Bud Selig and his performance-enhancing drug police frankly couldn’t have cared less.

This was a huge, monumental, and yes, historical victory for Major League Baseball’s drug-testing program.

It’s the largest performance-enhancing drug penalty in the history of baseball, and most important, scares the daylights out of anyone who dares to cheat again.

If you cheat, MLB will catch you.Oh, you may beat the drug tests. You may even beat the system for awhile. Yet, eventually, the MLB police will get you. And, oh, boy, will you pay.

3Major League Baseball presented the argument that Rodriguez was a serial user of performance-enhancing drugs.

They presented evidence that he tried to buy the incriminating evidence from the infamous Bioegensis Clinic in South Florida.

They provided detailed cell-phone phone records, medical charts, and testimony from Tony Bosch, the director of the now-defunct clinic.

Yes, and they played dirty, giving bags of cash worth $200,000 to one man who had stolen documents from the clinic.

What numbers say about the Clippers’ loss of Chris Paul

January 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

6The Los Angeles Clippers suffered a massive blow on Friday when Chris Paul went down with a shoulder injury that could sideline him several weeks. The injury shouldn’t jeopardize their season — they’re sitting at fourth in the Western Conference with a pretty easy January schedule — but the six-time All-Star point guard will be very difficult to replace in the meantime.

A passing virtuoso, Paul’s ability to make plays for his teammates is well-known. But his league-leading 11.2 assist-a-game average doesn’t tell the whole story. According to the SportVU tracking data provided on NBA.com’s stats site, Paul leads the league in practically every statistical category related to passing.

He averages 2.2 secondary assists a game (or “hockey assists,” meaning the pass that leads to another player’s assists), which just edges out Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio and Chicago’s D.J. Augustin for tops in the league. Raw assists can be a misleading statistic, because they are dependent on the player making the shot, which isn’t in the passer’s control. But Paul also leads the league in assist opportunities per game at 20.9, more than two opportunities better than the Washington Wizards’ John Wall.

Paul is tied for fourth place in passes per game leading to free throws for a teammate, and leads the league by some distance in both points created by assists per game (25.2) and per 48 minutes (34.7).

7Paul’s backup, Darren Collison, has played 18.9 minutes a game this season, starting in one of the 35 games he’s played this year. He’ll see a much greater level of responsibility while Paul is out, but the Clippers have relied so heavily on Paul this season that Collison hasn’t had much of a chance to play with the rest of the starting lineup.

According to nbawowy.com’s lineup tool, Collison has played a total of 500 minutes without Paul on the court this season. The Clippers have scored 104 points per 100 possessions with Collison running the show, and giving up 102.8 points per 100 possessions. This defensive mark is slightly better than Clippers lineups featuring Paul but not Collison (which give up 104.3 points per 100 possessions), but much worse offensively. With Paul on the floor and Collison on the bench, the Clippers score 111.1 points per 100 possessions.

One thing in the Clippers’ favor, is their January schedule is relatively friendly. They play the Indiana Pacers on the road on January 18 and face the Golden State Warriors in Oakland on January 30, but the rest of their games for the month are mostly against Eastern Conference lottery teams. If Paul comes back in three to five weeks, as Clippers coach Doc Rivers speculated on Friday, the Clippers should still be in position to compete for a high playoff seed.

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