NFL needs to open door for quicker healing

Give the Associated Press credit for at least opening the discussion over whether suspensions and other behavior should be weighed into honors and awards given to players. The news organization issued a revote on NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors this week following last Friday’s announcement that recipient and Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing(notes) will serve a four-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance last season.

While the Cushing case is intriguing, here’s the problem going forward: Are we, as a society, merely delaying the inevitable by holding on to ethical standards in sports and medicine that may be impossible to enforce? Worse, are we delaying the advancement of modern medicine by viewing sports through some artificially sanctified prism created primarily by the memories we hold dear rather than by logic?

Cushing reportedly tested positive for HCG.
(Bob Levey/Getty Images)

And are we doing it at a time when we’re about to have football players, who perform primarily to entertain us, put themselves at risk even more by playing either 17 or 18 regular-season games in the near future?

This is a difficult equation filled with pratfalls and bar-room arguments that play out in an endless loop. Perhaps that’s why a smart man with a passing interest in the discussion tries to boil it down to very simple terms.

“I think we all need to understand that times change and what was necessarily great 30, 40 or 50 years ago was great at that time,” said Dr. Thomas Rando, a professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University and the deputy director of the school’s Center on Longevity.

People like Rando look at sports as part whimsy and as part moving, living laboratory. In October, Rando led a discussion at Stanford entitled “Reversing the Aging Process: A Stem Cell Fountain of Youth.” He talked about his study of stem cells in rats and how the stem cells in younger mice were placed in older rats that had been injured. The older rats healed at a much faster rate than normal with the help of the stem cells.

Rando can envision athletes using stem cells or some other type of healing technology to keep playing just as scientists study the effects to gain greater knowledge of what works. Some people might see that as cheating. Rando sees this as a way to help society.

“As long as you’re talking about healing and not performance enhancement, I think that’s OK and I think fans should accept that,” said Rando, who has three degrees from Harvard University, spent 20 years at Stanford and has a list of honors to his credit such as the Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health, a Breakthroughs in Gerontology Award from the American Federation for Aging Research and a Schober Award from the German Society for Geriatrics and Gerontology.

To Rando, the line between healing and performance enhancement is pretty clear. To the average NFL fan, executive, coach or player, it’s a little blurry. For instance, healing more quickly is, in and of itself, allowing someone to perform faster at a level higher than they might have under normal circumstances. Or in the case of Cushing, helping an athlete battling numerous injuries and missing practice during the week to perform on Sundays.

However, Rando’s not talking about making a defensive end who runs a 4.8 40-yard dash into a guy who runs a 4.5. He’s talking about making sure the athlete runs a 4.8 rather than a 4.9 while he’s dealing with a sprained ankle. To some, that’s performance enhancement.

Ultimately, the NFL is facing a critical situation in the next few years when it comes to dealing with injuries and maintaining the best product it can possibly have for fans. Once the league and the NFL Players Association agree on a new collective bargaining agreement at some point probably in 2011, it’s basically a foregone conclusion that the season will expand to 17 or 18 games (count on 18).

Cushing was in on 134 tackles last season.
(Brett Davis/US Presswire)

With more games come more injuries. A lot more. In fact, many team executives think the injury increase won’t be a simple increase. For instance, X amount more games doesn’t mean just X amount more injuries.

“I think we’re going to see a staggering increase, not just in a given year, but over a series of years,” one AFC executive said. “We’re going to be wearing out bodies faster and harder and I think there’s going to be a huge breakdown … even with the young players. Normally, those guys bounce back faster, but I think we’re going to see a big problem because we’re almost doubling the season for a lot of those guys, especially when you compare a college schedule to an NFL schedule.”

What that executive pointed out is that so many college teams have multiple breaks in the season, featuring two weeks off at a time two or three times in a season and then a huge gap in time before a bowl game. That’s to say nothing of the number of blowout games that many teams have where star players may plan only a half.

“Now, we’re going to have those guys play every week for four-and-a-half months with one break and then, if they’re lucky, maybe another month of games. They’ll be falling out left and right.”

Thus, the need for better medical science, for a better understanding of what players should be allowed to use, isn’t only advisable, it’s critical to the long-term success of the sport. The last thing the NFL needs is important games at the end of the season or in the playoffs decided largely by unknown players.

So while we debate whether Cushing deserved to be the rookie of the year, we’re missing a bigger point: Football not only can serve as a valuable testing ground for the medical industry, it’s going to need the help very soon.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, May 12, 2010