Tackling the role of NFL team doctors


There's always been an uneasy alliance between football and medicine.

Medical care is important for a football team because the players suffer so many injuries in this violent sport. The better treatment they get, the faster they can get back on the field.

The problem is, when it comes to declaring an injured player fit for the field, there's often a fine line between what's best for the team and what's best for the player.

How that line is often crossed is examined in a searing book by Dr. Rob Huizenga titled, "You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise." Dr. Huizenga was the former -- stress former -- internist for the Los Angeles Raiders. Whether he quit or was fired is somewhat a matter of interpretation, but he probably wasn't destined for a long career in football.

"He's an idealist," said a doctor for another team who likes Dr. Huizenga. "He's trying to change the NFL."

Changing the National Football League is not easy.

Dr. Huizenga suggests team doctors might be appointed "to a set term, like a judge, perhaps by a consensus of owners and players, but then supervised solely by an impartial medical board or state commission."

Don't expect that to happen any time soon, although he points out that more and more players are now seeking second opinions.

But some things don't change.

Just look at last year's Super Bowl. Troy Aikman, the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, now admits he played the game in a fog after suffering a concussion the previous week. If Mr. Aikman had suffered another blow to the head while he was in that state, the results could have been catastrophic.

Although Dr. Huizenga doesn't address the Aikman case specifically, he writes, "Imagine the pressure . . . the Super Bowl is a week away and your star player is injured. . . . Enter you -- the team doctor -- perhaps also a little caught up in the pregame excitement. Remember, even medical professionals are human. They can occasionally succumb to pressure like everyone one."

Can you imagine a doctor trying to convince coach Jimmy Johnson and owner Jerry Jones -- or even Mr. Aikman himself -- that he shouldn't play in the Super Bowl?

This shouldn't suggest that Dr. Huizenga is an anti-football crusader or that this is a dry medical tome.

He admits he was sucked into the atmosphere of pro football. Even on a visit to the sidelines after he had left the team, he wrote, "I felt the power and exhilaration of professional football. . . . This is one hell of a great sport. It will never die."

But, the Raiders have suffered real deaths off the field. Five who have played in the last decade died at the ages of 26, 28, 31, 38 and 41.

"Is it football . . . or sheer coincidence?" Dr. Huizenga asks.

The most famous, of course, was Lyle Alzado, who admitted his steroid use before he died of a brain tumor in 1992.

Dr. Huizenga details how he tried over and over again to warn Alzado of the dangers of using steroids. Alzado not only ignored the warnings, but found ways to beat the NFL drug tests.

The most alarming story is about the late Dr. Robert Rosenfeld, the team's long-time orthopedic surgeon, whose reassuring line to injured players is the title of the book.

When Dr. Huizenga was wondering whether he should file a complaint with the Board of Medical Quality Assurance of California about some of Dr. Rosenfeld's medical decisions, he found out the doctor had lost his operating privileges at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

"He was a bad surgeon -- he had a high complication rate, and he had a lot of malpractice cases," the author was told.

When it came to medical care, it's obvious that Raiders owner Al Davis didn't have a commitment to excellence. For the football fan, there are a lot of inside looks at his dysfunctional football team.

One of the most intriguing is the possible origin of his feud with running back Marcus Allen, who left in frustration once the league got free agency. It's never been clear how Mr. Allen got in Mr. Davis' doghouse.

Dr. Huizenga suggests that it stemmed from a sprained ankle that Mr. Allen suffered in 1986. The injury lingered for weeks, and Mr. Davis at one point even ordered Mr. Allen to take a shot for it before a Monday night game. He later had a key fumble in overtime against Philadelphia that cost the Raiders a game. Mr. Davis apparently never forgave him.

A year later at a medical seminar, Dr. Huizenga heard a report about a certain type of ankle sprain that can take six weeks to heal.

The only major flaw in this book is that it lacks an index -- all serious books should have one -- but it's a compelling look at the underside of a popular sport.

Dr. Huizenga quotes a sports psychologist saying that football helmets should have a warning label -- like cigarette packs -- saying that football can be hazardous to your health. This book explains why the warning label would be appropriate.

Mr. Stellino writes about football for The Sun.


Title: "You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise"

Author: Rob Huizenga

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Length, price: 326 pages, $22.95

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