NFL 2011

Win a Championship, Lose a Knee
The stadium scene.
Feb. 8 2012 2:55 PM

NFL 2011

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Win a championship, lose a knee.

Jake Ballard #85 of the New York Giants.
The New York Giants' Jake Ballard suffers an injury in Super Bowl XLVI.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.

Like an amputee who can still feel his missing leg, I felt the tingle of my childhood fandom when Big Blue simultaneously shut up Belichick and wound up Gisele on Sunday. And now, in the afterglow of the Giants’ victory, the talk has been about dynasties and Hall of Fame busts and whether so-and-so and so-and-so are the best coach-quarterback combo in history. (When that last item became a measure of anything more than fortuitous timing, stable ownership, and at least modest success, I have no idea. Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid are No. 5 on this list. How important can it be?)

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

At the risk of raining on my own parade, I’m moving on from enjoying the triumph of Eli Manning, the new standard-bearer for the modest and rational athlete. That’s because of the news that Jake Ballard, a Giants tight end, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the fourth quarter of the game. Tough luck for Ballard, and bad day for the knees of New York tight ends; Travis Beckum had torn an ACL earlier in the game. The fact of the injuries themselves isn’t surprising; violent game, turf field, sudden torques, part of football, blah blah blah. What’s distressing, and also a sad but fitting conclusion to the end of a season in which medical care was a running storyline, is how Ballard’s injury appears to have unfolded.

A 6-foot-6, 275-pound second-year player who caught 38 passes during the regular season, Ballard wasn’t hurt doing anything dramatic. Covered by Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes, Ballard ran 10 yards straight upfield, planted his left foot and cut to his right, and went down. The sequence is barely visible in the NFL.com video. But the cameras show Ballard a few seconds later rolling around in pain and grabbing his left knee. The Giants’ medical staff set Ballard on his back and rolled his pant leg above his knee.

My immediate thought: He tore his ACL. No doubt about it. A few minutes later, NBC showed a replay of Ballard running on the sideline. He took a half dozen steps and collapsed like a shot horse. Football is filled with horrific collisions and avert-your-eyes injuries. But this was one of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed during an NFL game. “You have to admire his courage for trying,” NBC commentator Cris Collinsworth remarked. “You do,” Al Michaels replied solemnly. All hail the wounded warrior. Reporters were told during the game that Ballard had a “sprained knee.” Afterward, Ballard said he tore his meniscus. While New York City municipal workers swept up confetti, the Giants announced the full ACL tear via Twitter, after Ballard underwent an MRI.

I’m no orthopedic surgeon (though I have torn the ACL in each of my knees), but something doesn’t add up. You don’t need an MRI to determine whether someone has shredded his ACL, which connects the femur in the upper leg with the tibia in the lower leg, providing stability and allowing lateral motion. The simplest, most common, and most reliable way to diagnose a torn ACL is the Lachman test, which involves bending the knee, holding down the thigh, and then pulling the calf forward. It takes a few seconds to do.

Only the Giants’ doctors and trainers know what happened on the sideline. But here are four possibilities: They performed the Lachman test and found no instability and suggested that Ballard test his knee by running. They performed the Lachman test and found some instability but suggested that—or yielded to Ballard’s insistence that—he try to run. They performed the Lachman test and blew the diagnosis completely. Or they confirmed a tear but allowed Ballard to run anyway.

I’d be shocked if it was the last one. I’m as cynical as the next observer when it comes to the NFL’s culture of toughness, the not-so-subtle pressure to return to the field no matter the circumstances or costs, and the understandable abandonment of rational faculties in the heat of a game, especially the Super Bowl. But a torn ACL is a deal-breaker. So maybe Ballard, after departing the field, was bearing some weight and his knee wasn’t buckling. Which means he may have torn the ACL on the sideline. Which means the Giants’ medical staff might have allowed Ballard to injure himself more seriously than he already was—and pretty badly at that.

“Shut it down” are the three hardest words for an NFL trainer to utter. The Giants had already lost one tight end. They trailed by two points with less than a quarter to go in the freaking Super Bowl. I’m certain that Ballard wanted to play. I’m certain that his coaches wanted him to play. And I’m certain that the Giants’ medical staff wanted him to be well enough to play, too. But it sure looked like he wasn’t. Ballard might have been better served if an independent orthopedist—one not paid by the Giants—had been required to examine him, even it meant that we wouldn’t have been able to “admire his courage.” 

Our Slate-Deadspin dialogue is ending, but the NFL’s 366-day news cycle marches on. It will feature the other Manning, his potential replacement, and the quotidian dramas that make the league so appealing, and also so wealthy. After another fantastic season of play, capped by another fantastic title game, the NFL doesn’t have to worry about its place in American culture. But it can still do much more when it comes to protecting the health and safety of its players. “Forever forward,” Ray Lewis says in the NFL’s commercial on the subject, which aired just before Jake Ballard went down. We’ll see.

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