Parenting and Football Part III: The Rise of Injuries

The biggest sports news early this month was that professional football was returning to Los Angeles, America’s second largest city and the world’s entertainment capital, after a more than 20 year hiatus. It was little noticed that the proposed new stadium for the Rams is to be on the site of the old Hollywood Park horse track. I believe this is a good example of how sports popularity has changed over the last two generations.
Prior to 1960, the consensus was that the three most popular American spectator sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing. I can recall a 1950’s-era sportswriter being asked why, after a career of several decades, he was finally retiring. He answered succinctly: “Two reasons……..January and February.” In those days football ended in December and one had to wait till March for baseball’s spring training and the basketball playoffs. The only way for sports fans to get through the winter was horse racing and boxing’s “Friday Night Fights’, the latter being a fixture in my household.
The 1950’s was the peak in popularity for all three of those sports and by 1980 all three were greatly diminished, after a last gasp in the 1970’s: baseball had the Yankees rising from the dead with the arrival of Reggie Jackson, boxing had Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier/George Foreman and the horses had the unforgettable Secretariat.
As stated before, 1958 saw the NFL’s first overtime game and with it pro football’s gradual rise to the summit of American sports popularity.  That overtime championship game put the Baltimore Colts and their quarterback, Johnny Unitas, in the spotlight, but there was a well-loved but often overlooked player on the team who is the perfect lead-in for the topic of injuries in football.  He was a huge defensive lineman, Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb.  He quickly became a crowd and media favorite (to see the fanaticism of the 1958-59 Colts’ fans, watch the classic “Diner” in which a fiancee must pass a long test on the Colts as a prelude to a marriage proposal), mostly due to his sheer mass: he was listed at 6’6″, 285 pounds but was said to be actually 320 and surprisingly very fast for a big man.  Lipscomb would be today’s typical pro lineman but was considered a freak of nature in the 1950’s.

The 1950’s of course was  the era before TV money began to inflate players’ salaries.  Even adjusting for inflation, players made only a fraction of today’s players: it was said the average 1960 NFL player made $6,000 and even the heralded Unitas made only $14,000 (@$140,000 in today’s dollars, compared to today’s average NFL salary of $2 million).   Thus, virtually all players of that era were forced to have an off-season job and usually never entered a weight room till August.  The stereotype was the NFL player who sold cars or insurance or ran a bar-restaurant for eight months a year.  In 1960 expansion came to the NFL, the first Superbowl was in 1966 and TV money steadily climbed from that point, which lead to year-long training.

By the 1990’s the typical lineman was approaching “Lipscombesque” proportions and the laws of physics began to kick in: large immovable objects were encountering irresistible forces at high speeds all over America.  A recent glaring example of this has been today’s equivalent of the 1958-59 Colts, the New England Patriots, the most consistent team of our new millennium.   The Patriots were rudely pushed off the road to a Superbowl repeat, mostly due to the fact that their linemen were decimated by injuries: our generation’s Unitas, Tom Brady, was roughed up by the Broncos because his offensive line had had 39 different combinations of players this season.

Next week we’ll go on to a modern-day Colt, Jeff Saturday, and how he views football for his two sons.   We’ll also cover the new Will Smith movie, Concussion, and its possible consequences for football at all levels.



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