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The Nastiest Injury in Sports
December 11, 2013 1:26 PM   Subscribe

After a weekend in which tight end Rob Gronkowski and safety Tyrann Mathieu both sustained season-ending tears to their anterior cruciate ligaments, many NFL fans are wondering why there seem to be more such injuries this season than in seasons past. Grantland looks at the dreaded ACL tear and tries to solve the puzzle.

Some (including T.J. Ward, Gronkowski's tackler on the play which injured him) blame the rules that discourage shots to the head, claiming they force defenders to go low in order to make tackles. Others point to the shorter training camps and new limitations on offseason work that the players negotiated for in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.

Outside the NFL, ACL tears are increasingly common in the NBA, with Derrick Rose the most notable victim. Last May, Rose tore the ACL in his left knee; last month, he tore the meniscus, the ACL's neighbor, in his right knee. And, for reasons that haven't yet been identified, women are far more at risk for ACL tears than men. Though, as Dejuan Blair has demonstrated, it's possible to play professional sports without any ACLs at all.

Previously.
posted by savetheclocktower (34 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ayuh
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 1:33 PM on December 11, 2013


Not taking enough fish oil.
posted by turbid dahlia at 1:43 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I had AM radio on the other day, which is a mistake in itself, listening to some dumbass ex-football coach (sounded like Holtz or Ditka) talking about how "if I was a football player today, I'd rather get hit high than low, because a concussion you can come back from pretty quick but an ACL tear `threatens your livelihood`" I...just...CRIPES

These are interesting articles, but nastiest injury in sports? I'd have to vote for the one to your brain.
posted by mcstayinskool at 1:43 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


My knowledge of American sport is pretty patchy, but I grew up as a young soccer fan viewing the cruciate ligament as an almost deus ex machina injury, due to such infamous victims as Paul Gascoigne in the 1991 FA Cup Final (I don't think it's that much of a stretch to say that tackle ruined his life), Roy Keane, Michael Owen (another who never really recovered), Niall Quinn etc. The recovery time is way down these days, but back then whether someone was able to get back to their best afterwards seemed as much a reflection of their strength of character as whether the injury itself healed.
posted by kersplunk at 1:46 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The always awesome Jo Innes writes on the ACL from a Hockey perspective over here.
posted by regularfry at 1:46 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Nastiest Injury in Sports

Malarchuk and Zednik might take issue with that.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:46 PM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


Some (including T.J. Ward, Gronkowski's tackler on the play which injured him) blame the rules that discourage shots to the head, claiming they force defenders to go low in order to make tackles.

I really feel like I'm missing something here -- there's a lot of real estate between head and legs, so why are people saying that discouraging shots to the head will result in more leg injuries?
posted by Etrigan at 1:46 PM on December 11, 2013


Not taking enough fish oil.

Mild doses of physic and rubdowns with rough Turkish towels have always done the trick for me.
posted by Copronymus at 1:49 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


A high school friend of my daughter was an all-star volleyball player. She was recruited by Penn State and was doing great there until an ACL tear ended her college play. Of course, she lost her scholarship, too. Have no idea where she ended up. Sad.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:51 PM on December 11, 2013


> I really feel like I'm missing something here -- there's a lot of real estate between head and legs, so why are people saying that discouraging shots to the head will result in more leg injuries?

My guess is that defensive players think that if they're not allowed to rattle you with a head shot, the next best thing is to go low and make you stumble to the ground. I think both approaches will put a ballcarrier on the ground more reliably than a torso shot.

Someone on ESPN argued that Gronk, in particular, is susceptible to low shots simply because he's freakishly strong. Tacklers know that if they try to grab him around the stomach they'll get dragged all the way to the end zone.
posted by savetheclocktower at 2:00 PM on December 11, 2013


Mild doses of physic and rubdowns with rough Turkish towels have always done the trick for me.

A good Epsom salt soak.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:07 PM on December 11, 2013


I will throw in the story of the Rugby League player who ruptured a nut in the GB Grand Final last year. He finished the game and had it removed afterwards.

They lost.
posted by biffa at 2:10 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I really feel like I'm missing something here -- there's a lot of real estate between head and legs, so why are people saying that discouraging shots to the head will result in more leg injuries?

It's not that they want to take head shots, it's that these days any hard tackle up around the shoulders runs the risk of getting flagged as a head shot, even when it's not. A textbook wrap-him-up tackle around the midsection is an alternative, but not when you're a corner or safety (typically light and fast) trying to take down a guy like Gronkowski or similarly large, strong player. They'll just shake you off or drag you along. So you're left with cutting him down, and that means risking taking out a knee.
posted by schoolgirl report at 2:16 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really feel like I'm missing something here -- there's a lot of real estate between head and legs, so why are people saying that discouraging shots to the head will result in more leg injuries?

My guess is that defensive players think that if they're not allowed to rattle you with a head shot, the next best thing is to go low and make you stumble to the ground. I think both approaches will put a ballcarrier on the ground more reliably than a torso shot.


Yeah, for someone like Gronk, or quite a few running backs, the average DB will just bounce off if they go for his midsection and he's got any kind of steam built up.
posted by LionIndex at 2:17 PM on December 11, 2013


I really feel like I'm missing something here -- there's a lot of real estate between head and legs, so why are people saying that discouraging shots to the head will result in more leg injuries?

Rob Gronkowski is 6' 6", 265 and runs a 4.6. TJ Ward is 5' 10", 200. There's no way for a guy his size to make an arm tackle center of mass on Gronk without getting dragged an extra 15 yards.
posted by nathancaswell at 2:23 PM on December 11, 2013


One likely reason that girls and women have higher rates of ACL injury because they are, as a group, less athletically prepared and less gifted in physical attributes like strength. From the NY Times:
Girls and boys diverge in their physical abilities as they enter puberty and move through adolescence. Higher levels of testosterone allow boys to add muscle and, even without much effort on their part, get stronger. In turn, they become less flexible. Girls, as their estrogen levels increase, tend to add fat rather than muscle. They must train rigorously to get significantly stronger. The influence of estrogen makes girls’ ligaments lax, and they outperform boys in tests of overall body flexibility — a performance advantage in many sports, but also an injury risk when not accompanied by sufficient muscle to keep joints in stable, safe positions. Girls tend to run differently than boys — in a less-flexed, more-upright posture — which may put them at greater risk when changing directions and landing from jumps. Because of their wider hips, they are more likely to be knock-kneed — yet another suspected risk factor.
Addressing these issues with balance, strength, and agility work has shown itself to be a promising path.
posted by daveliepmann at 2:26 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think both approaches will put a ballcarrier on the ground more reliably than a torso shot.

It's more the increased calling of 'shots to the head' or 'hit on a defenseless receiver' that we see in the NFL these days, that discourages it. It's often not the fault of the defender; if you're aiming for the chest of the offensive player, and he dips his head just a little, right before you hit him, you can cause a helmet-to-helmet hit that ends up with your team losing 15 yards to a foul and often with a large fine for the defensive player.

I wouldn't want to play defense in the NFL anymore, you can't hardly do your job without being called for a foul. And yet, even with all the additional protections we see, it seems like concussions are through the roof this season.
posted by Cycloptichorn at 2:44 PM on December 11, 2013


I wistfully recall Lawrence Taylor snapping Joes Theisman femur. Those were more innocent times...
posted by Renoroc at 3:14 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's often not the fault of the defender; if you're aiming for the chest of the offensive player, and he dips his head just a little, right before you hit him, you can cause a helmet-to-helmet hit

Yes, this. I think that the league absolutely had to do something about shots to the head (though if only they were actually concerned about players' health instead of future lawsuits!) but the tendence of any player who's about to be hit to curl over a bit and lower their head/shoulders absolutely screws defensive players who had no intention of going for the head, but had the offensive player's head lowered into them.

So defensive players start aiming lower, and then on top of that they're often launching themselves at the ball carrier if it's looking like an open-field breakaway and you have them going even lower than they intended. With the exception of some of the known dirty players in the league, I think that most players aren't out to cripple their opponent, but the combination of must go low + launching is disastrous for everyone's knees.
posted by TwoStride at 3:32 PM on December 11, 2013


How much do steroids play a part? Jacking your muscles has to strain ligaments and such.
posted by glaucon at 3:38 PM on December 11, 2013


Gronkowski was hit low to avoid a shot to the head, received a season ending injury, and actually got a concussion on the play anyway. That's the part of this story that must have the NFL worried.
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:43 PM on December 11, 2013


I really feel like I'm missing something here -- there's a lot of real estate between head and legs, so why are people saying that discouraging shots to the head will result in more leg injuries?

Purple nurples are against the rules and impossible because of padding.
posted by discopolo at 3:53 PM on December 11, 2013


In my favorite sitcoms, all the footballs players really need is a semester of secret ballet classes that their buddies can't find out about.
posted by discopolo at 3:55 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reducing the size of the pads and helmet would go a long way. NHL reduced them and required the pads to be softer. Currently the pads are weapons, designed to protect giving a shot rather than taking one.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:19 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Reducing the size of the pads and helmet would go a long way. NHL reduced them and required the pads to be softer. Currently the pads are weapons, designed to protect giving a shot rather than taking one.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:19 PM


I played college hockey (ACHA, which is a competitive club league), and wearing full pads makes you feel invulnerable. Even though you're not.

Playing in limited pads or without a helmet really makes you cautious on the ice. I like the idea of changing the pads to encourage more tactical tackles than brute force tackles.
posted by glaucon at 4:34 PM on December 11, 2013


I just want to say, this is good sports writing. I care nothing about football but I saved this to Pocket.
posted by JHarris at 4:57 PM on December 11, 2013


Sports medicine specialist physician friend (whose 16-y.o. son is currently recovering from ACL surgery that involved both knees, taking tissue from the healthy knee to repair the tear in the other) tells me this injury is associated with the type of planting and pivoting moves that occur more frequently in certain sports (i.e., football and basketball) as much as or even more than it is with hits.
posted by Anitanola at 5:21 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


In my favorite sitcoms, all the footballs players really need is a semester of secret ballet classes that their buddies can't find out about.

Football players have been doing ballet for more than 30 years now.
posted by asterix at 5:33 PM on December 11, 2013


I just want to say, this is good sports writing.

I only watch combat sports, and I still check Grantland daily and read about other sports. Novel concept, in this content farm age, that good writing transcends the subject matter.
posted by Dark Messiah at 6:20 PM on December 11, 2013


I had AM radio on the other day, which is a mistake in itself, listening to some dumbass ex-football coach (sounded like Holtz or Ditka) talking about how "if I was a football player today, I'd rather get hit high than low, because a concussion you can come back from pretty quick but an ACL tear `threatens your livelihood`" I...just...CRIPES

That might sound bat-shit crazy to all of us non NFL players, but from the way I have heard current players talk, it is accurate. These players are not idiots. They know the risks. But they want to play and they would rather not have career or season ending injuries. And many of us do things that we know *may* kill us prematurely. Smokers do it. And football players do it too.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 6:20 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Kevin Ware says hey.
posted by HillbillyInBC at 7:09 PM on December 11, 2013


this injury is associated with the type of planting and pivoting moves that occur more frequently in certain sports (i.e., football and basketball) as much as or even more than it is with hits.

Happens all the time in roller derby. I'm nursing such an injury myself. (It's almost back to normal, it just gives me grief when I have to drive because the clutch in my car is very heavy.)
posted by Lucinda at 8:00 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah... When I tore my ACL last year, I accepted it as the price of playing soccer. A year later I'm more or less back. My surgeon said if I'll keep playing I'll probably tear the other one someday. Of course now I have extra empathy for others with knee injuries.
posted by kendrak at 11:53 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love hearing these epic battle stories of torn ligaments in sports. I tore one shaking a pebble out of my right sandal. Fortunately not an ACL.
posted by srboisvert at 9:10 AM on December 12, 2013


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