NFL Lockout Spurs Concerns About Players' Health, Safety
NEW YORK -- NFL doctors and experts in heat-related illnesses spoke with each team this week. The message, delivered loud and clear: practice caution.
These mandatory conference calls assume greater importance because of the 4 1/2-month lockout that ended Monday. Offseason workouts and minicamps were eliminated by the work stoppage.
"We don't know where these people are coming from, and normally they would be in their team's facility for four months training," said Dr. Douglas J. Casa, kinesiology professor at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education, and the chief scientist at the Korey Stringer Institute. "You might have a player going to Houston and he has been training in a more northern climate.
"We were trying to reiterate the most basic and important concerns when someone is exercising in heat. The real primal things: exercise in the heat, getting ready to handle it, the basic precautions, what are you looking for if there is a problem."
Stringer, an offensive lineman for the Vikings, died at 27 in August 2001 of exertional heat stroke. The institute, established in 2010, operates independently but has a working relationship with the NFL.
"This has been a real point of emphasis since Korey died," said Dr. Andrew Tucker, the head team physician for the Baltimore Ravens. "With this unique preseason, coaches and clubs are under the gun to get a lot of work done in a short period of time. I would anticipate intense and fast-paced practices, which combined with extreme environmental conditions can be a recipe for problems."
Also participating in the calls with the 32 teams were NFL doctors Hunt Batjer and Richard Ellenbogen, who primarily addressed head injuries. Dr. Margaret Kolka, former head of the Army's environmental medicine division, and Casa spoke about heat-related injuries.
New York Giants associate team physician Dr. Scott Rodeo emphasized the uncertainty permeating this offseason.
"This camp may be more challenging as athletes may not be in optimal physical condition due to lack of organized training activities during the recent lockout," Rodeo said. "Team medical staffs are just now examining the athletes for the first time in several months, so we need to take extra care in evaluating the athletes."
Casa noted the critical nature of monitoring players in their first five days of strenuous activities at training camps, which began opening Wednesday. Those players are not "heat-acclimatized" and are far more vulnerable to significant problems.
"It is a hyper-concern right now and being more cautious is essential," said Casa, stressing that the phone calls were not done to "scare people."
"We have no idea on the physical shape of these people," he added. "Some teams could have half the people there that are new faces. General managers and coaches are worrying about signing players, and players are worrying about learning the playbook. Sometimes you must take a step back and safety has to come first."
Doctors and trainers always emphasize hydration and rapid cooling during rigorous workouts. Will players, particularly fringe ones trying to make an early impression, heed the danger signs and not push themselves too far?
That has been a problem more on the youth level than in college or the pros, Casa noted.
Jets head team physician Dr. Kenneth Montgomery predicts the elimination of a second daily, full-pads practice – the dreaded two-a-days – will benefit everyone. And not only for training camps, but right into the season.
"It means a much safer practice when there is less contact," Montgomery said, "and players are not as beat up and they are less likely to get major injuries. When players will feel more healthy and rested as we finish training camps, they will feel better prepared and will perform optimally at each practice rather than, say, having just six hours of recovery after two-a-day sessions."
Montgomery sees an added benefit to that: Veterans who abhorred the old-style training camps just might stick around the game longer.
"Wouldn't you like to keep a LaDainian Tomlinson around the younger guys and in the locker room as an influence?" he said.