Cowboys play a weighting game

With great regret it is necessary to report the departure from the upper reaches of American football of the Western world’s most extraordinary-looking professional sportsman, one Aaron Gibson.

The Dallas Cowboys have released Gibson because he was competing against more versatile and less well-paid players for reserve positions on their roster. We are assured that the decision had nothing, repeat nothing, to do with his weight. This is officially listed as 410lb (187kg).
Nor did it have anything to do with the fact that his head is so large it was impossible to find a helmet that fitted.

Gibson was the first player in National Football League history registered over the 400lb (185kg) mark, though he insisted: “I’m just the first to admit it. There are eight to 10 other guys who aren’t saying it.” And he is merely the tip of the iceberg, as it were, or the lead iceberg of an advancing glacial formation.

He is an offensive tackle, a job that requires size above all; he is not normally even expected to touch the ball. The entire Dallas offensive line (which protects Emmitt Smith, who is on the brink of beating the all-time rushing record) weighs an average 335lb (152kg). There are now more than 300 players in the league above 300lb (137kg). In 1990 there were just 50 of them. It adds a whole new dimension to the saying “You’re twice the man I am”.

These figures emerged at roughly the same time as two related stories. One was that the latest official statistics show that almost two-thirds of United States adults are now considered to be overweight and almost a third actually obese, meaning they are 15kg or more overweight. The other was a sad tale in The New York Times about Mike Webster, a Pittsburgh Steelers centre of the 1970s and 1980s, who died last month, aged 50.

Part of Webster’s problem was that he had the same mental symptoms as a punch-drunk boxer, presumed to be from blows to his head. However, he actually died from a heart attack.

A government study of professional linemen—traditionally the gargantuans of gridiron—showed that they are six times more likely to die from heart disease than the average American. And these are the linemen from bygone days, when they were big rather than enormous. Webster weighed a mere 252lb (115kg) when he played; the modern Cowboys would kick sand in his face.

Now there is a difference between being large and just being fat. Dallas reporters who have first-hand knowledge say that Gibson, when stripped, still looks like an athlete (in general I prefer to see things for myself but am content to make an exception in this case). But this does not appear to be an issue in the heart disease statistics. And that may not be the only problem. “We are creating a generation of super football players who will be crippled for the remainder of their life with arthritis,” according to Pierce Stanton, a former team doctor for the Seattle Seahawks.

The change in American football apparently began in the late 1970s when the blocking rules were relaxed, allowing offensive linemen to extend their elbows, which put a further premium on sheer size. But baseball players are bulking out too and the sport is belatedly and half-heartedly beginning to do something about what suspicious minds assume is a widespread culture of steroid use.

But neither steroids nor giant-sized portions of junk food are essential to reach this size. Supplements like androstenedione, formerly snorted by the East Germans and popularised in the US by Mark McGwire, former holder of the baseball home-run record, or creatine could be involved. Both help sportsmen reach performance levels they could not get to on their own; both are unregulated; both have uncertain long-term effects.

It seems to me that any sport whose rules and culture are endangering the health of the players has an obligation to start changing them. This is not merely an American issue. It is true in all sports where players depend on painkilling injections. But American football is an extreme case.

And there is no sign of change coming any time soon. The major football colleges, the gateway into the professional game, are competing for the signature of a high-school boy from Indiana who already weighs 410lb. His name is Adam Gibson. That’s right: Aaron’s little kid brother.—

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