If The NFL Cares About Player Safety, This Doctor Has Three Prescriptions

As another NFL season has kicked off, I am concerned about the alarming injury rate. It seems out of proportion to years past and certainly as compared to other forms of football, like college for example. Football is a collision sport, injuries are unfortunately a part of the game, however, it appears that the rate is substantially higher in the NFL.

I have treated many NFL players in my practice and I am approaching this apparent epidemic from a purely medical angle. We saw NFL stars injured during the preseason, and injuries to lesser known players as well. Coaches are concerned to put their starters on the field for extended time during preseason games because of fear of injury. Even contact in practice has been limited recently as part of the collective bargaining agreement. The NFL needs to make some more changes however, to help protect and prolong the careers of its players. Here are some suggestions:

1. Expand NFL rosters

Ravens coach John Harbaugh asking for more players (on rosters) is an idea I fully support. It is time to have more players on the field to lessen the exposure per player in practice. I also support a larger practice squad. NFL teams are running out of players. The playoffs are at risk of becoming a case of “the last man standing” and not necessarily the best teams.

There are two types of injuries in sports; acute collision injuries such as concussions, knee blow outs and fractures; and there are the chronic injuries that are simply repetitive “mileage” type of injuries such as Achilles and patellar tendon ruptures (too many snaps). Acute injuries are difficult to eliminate because it is simply a matter of exposures. More players on the roster would certainly reduce the exposure per player, per season. The NFL needs to expand rosters in order to decrease the individual player’s reps and overall wear and tear (it’s not unusual for Division1-A colleges to have over 100 players on the team).

2. Eliminate artificial turf

Current players are certainly bigger, stronger and faster than those of just a few years ago, thanks in large part to better nutrition and sports science. Therefore, collisions are more significant than before, causing more damage. Artificial turf is easier to care for and makes for better footing and quicker cuts. It is also a less forgiving surface during collisions. I always ask my football players their preference, “natural grass or artificial turf?” Almost all prefer natural grass. On grass fields, the game is a bit slower, therefore the impact is lessened. Natural grass is also known to be more forgiving for the non contact knee injuries. All top-tier European soccer teams refuse to play on artificial surfaces because of the known injury risk. Lets go back to natural grass fields.

3. Play fewer full contact, full speed, meaningless games

The NFL preseason should be reduced. Perhaps to two games. This lessens both the exposures and the cumulative repetitions.

We are all excited about the start of another NFL season, but the league needs to do more to protect the players. These steps will help reduce injuries and prolong careers.

Dr. T.O. Souryal is an orthopaedic surgeon and Medical Director at Texas Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Group. He served as the head team physician for the Dallas Mavericks for more than 22 years and was the two-time president of the NBA Physicians Association. He currently hosts “Inside Sports Medicine” on ESPN 103.3 FM in Dallas.