ANOTHER SEASON of the National Football League, that human demolition derby, is upon us. Which raises a question: Boxing, anyone?
In the first three weeks of the NFL preseason, 17 players suffered injuries serious enough to sideline them from four weeks through the entire season.
Among them, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick collapsed with a broken leg, New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington underwent surgery for what reports termed a "gruesome" broken hand and Washington Redskins defensive tackle Brandon Noble suffered a knee injury so catastrophic it ended his season and perhaps his career.
And that's not to mention all the Jacksonville Jaguars carted off the field, hooked to IVs, suffering heat exhaustion.
This sample from mere practice recalls three consecutive weeks of regular season in November: First, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Darrell Jackson suffered a concussion and potentially life-threatening convulsions; next, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox was hospitalized with a bruised spinal cord and concussion; and finally, Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Chad Clifton was hospitalized for five days with numbness in his feet and hands signaling possible nerve damage.
The dark reality behind NFL spectacles is such that in the off-season, attorneys for the Redskins - who ended last season with 11 players on injured reserve - proposed that the Virginia General Assembly exempt the team from workers' compensation requirements. The steady stream of seriously wounded and the deaths of two pro football legends last year remind us how far removed from sport the NFL's human cockfighting is.
Mike Webster, a leader on the Steelers' Super Bowl teams of the 1970s, died at 50. The brain damage he suffered as a player apparently was a factor in his premature death as well as the downhill spiral of his post-football life.
Johnny Unitas, who redefined the quarterback position during his Baltimore Colts career, died of a heart attack at 69. Mr. Unitas had developed severe osteoarthritis from an on-the-field elbow injury. An obituary noted that in retirement, Mr. Unitas retained only limited use of his right hand. He also had undergone two knee-replacement surgeries, complained of nerve damage to other parts of his body and quarreled with the NFL over compensation.
Forty-six percent of players retire from pro football as the direct result of injuries, according to a Ball State University study. Not only because of dramatic blows - Darryl Stingley's paralysis in 1978, Joe Theismann's compound leg fracture in 1985, or Steve Young's final concussion in 1999 - but also because of damage from routine contact.
Studies show that 65 percent of pro players report at least one injury serious enough to require surgery or cause them to miss half a season or more. Sixty percent reported suffering at least one concussion; 26 percent two or more.
The surgeries continue long after the playing stops. Oakland Raiders defensive end Trace Armstrong, 37, veteran of 15 seasons and 16 operations and president of the NFL Players Association, has said, "You go to our retired players' conventions, and some of these guys don't look so good. Young men, one-time great athletes, but they don't move around so well."
Football was always a collision sport. But by the 1980s, NFL players were suffering twice as many serious injuries, undergoing twice as many operations, as those in the 1950s.
Two generations ago, no one played on speed-enhancing, injury-multiplying artificial turf. A generation ago, 300-pound players were rare; now NFL rosters list about 300.
In keeping with the laws of physics and physiology, the bigger they are and the faster they run, the harder they fall and the more they hurt. Quarterbacks wear flak jackets for a reason.
Pro football demands exceptional athletic ability. Fans pay hundreds of dollars for tickets, networks billions for broadcast rights. But played outside its own rules - penalizing every holding, face-masking and knee-block violation would paralyze the action - and dependent on brutality, it's gladiatorial combat, not a sport.
Curtis Marsh, 44, played seven years for the NFL Raiders in Oakland and Los Angeles. He has endured roughly 30 operations, has an artificial right leg, several pain-killing prescriptions, and an aluminum walker. Such is the game we cheer.
Eric Rozenman is an author and a longtime Cleveland Browns fan. He lives in Fairfax, Va.