Professional Sports Prepare Game Plans For MRSA Superbug

Joe BrownCorrespondent IFebruary 21, 2010

The residual symptoms of being blind-sided on a corner blitz usually subside after some aspirin and a few days rest. At the very moment of impact, it plays like a symphony of grunts and cracking pads.

Sure it’s painful but football players are trained to be tough and play through pain. They shake it off, make it to the huddle and call the next play.

Usually the worst physical damage that could’ve occurred—besides the normal bumps and bruises—are torn muscles and ligaments, a concussion or maybe a broken bone.

So why is one possible outcome that happens on the same play causing the most danger never seen, heard, or even felt? 

Because this attacker is a microscopic bacterium from the increasingly common, yet relatively understood, “superbug” or MRSA (methicillin-resistant S. aureus)—a mean and stubborn relative of the common Staphylococcus aureus, or as it’s usually called in the general public, a staph infection.

The Superbug

Let’s take a look at this silent assassin in more detail before talking about its impact on the sports world—most recently a ‘who’s who’ in the NFL with names like Manning and Brady.

Historically, the leading cause of skin infections and abscesses has always been the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus or SA).  When the antibiotic penicillin became available in the mid-1940s, physicians believed they had a successful treatment for S. aureus infections.

“Like most antibiotics used today, penicillin was over-used and strains of S. aureus became resistant to penicillin,” according to Dr. William J. Brown, a renowned Infectious Disease expert in the Microbiology and Immunology community.

The pharmaceutical industry developed a new class of antibiotics around 1960 which were not destroyed by the penicillin-resistant S . aureus and doctors believed this was a cure in treating the penicillin-resistant S. aureus .

This new drug was called methicillin. Brown continued, “It was not long after methicillin came into use until new strains of S. aureus began to occur which were also resistant to methicillin (methicillin-resistant S . aureus – MRSA). 

However, these MRSA strains were only occurring in hospitals and other health-care facilities where many antibiotics were in use and resistant strains of S. aureus had an advantage over strains killed by methicillin.”

In the mid- to late-1990s, severe skin and underlying tissue infections among students playing football and wrestling began to appear. Specimens were collected from the infected sites and sent to Microbiology Laboratories which turned out to be MRSA.

Invisible Opponent Sacks NFL

According to a study during the 2003 NFL season, 9% of the St. Louis Rams players developed MRSA skin infections according to Dermatologist and University of Cincinnati Professor, Dr. Brian B. Adams.

“Considering all factors, the authors of the St. Louis Rams study concluded that frequent antibiotic use, compromised skin barriers, skin contact between players, close proximity of teammates, and inadequate hand and personal hygiene by trainers and athletes may have contributed to the team’s MRSA outbreak,” Adams stated.

An alarming trend has appeared recently in pro sports but perhaps none more than the heavy publicized cases of some of the biggest names in the NFL.

The public should realize that these insidious bacterial infections go far beyond the ‘flu-like symptoms’ that sideline athletes for a few days. This is significantly more serious.

Besides the negative effects of missing several weeks of playing time on their team’s season, this is a potentially fatal disease that now has the attention of players.

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte echoes the thought, stating, “I'm concerned, and wondering why it's happening. It's not some little infection that goes away in a few days; it’s pretty serious.”

Where is this coming from? Why does it seem this has seemingly come out of nowhere?

After I asked those questions to Dr. Brown, he stated: “One percent of all healthy individuals carry MRSA in their nose and this serves as a source of infection to others. The bacteria are spread from the nose to the skin surface, mostly by the person’s hands.

"The MRSA bacteria are spread to equipment and playing surfaces. In addition, the physical contact between athletes can spread the MRSA from one individual to another.

"The major protection from infection is our intact skin. If there is any break in the skin—even microscopic breaks not visible to the eye—they can serve as a entrance point for Staph aureus. Turf burns, especially from artificial turf, are a problem.”  

With the seemingly effusion of dangerous strains of staph in sports, its obvious serious attention needs to be given to these bacteria.

“It’s impossible to keep from coming into contact with infectious bacteria.  Everything we come in contact with in our daily lives contains microorganisms.  Most are not capable of causing infections.  It is the strains like MRSA which do,” Brown continued.

League Forced to Take Action

NFL superstars were infected with various strains of staph during the 2008 season. The two best present-day quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, were among this group.

Not only are they two of the greatest in recent memory, they’re also vital for the revenue-generating machine otherwise known as the National Football League. I’m sure the league is playing close attention know.

The Colts signal-caller required two off-season surgeries for a staph infection in fluid around his bursa sac (knee area).

Part of the treatment was the removal of the bursa sac which caused Peyton to miss the entire pre-season—while fantasy owners lost some sleep with a curiously quiet Colts front office not letting many details out.

New England Patriots superstar QB Tom Brady and former Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. were not as fortunate.

Brady was apparently infected while being treated for his season-ending knee injury at the start of the season. Since the initial operation on his knee, the Pro Bowler has had at least three precautionary anti-MRSA procedures done.

While Brady eventually recovered, credible reports about how dangerously close he was to missing the entire 2009 season, were legit. Brady also had to receive nearly two months worth of intravenous antibiotics.

The situation with Kellen Winslow Jr. was a fixture in the media for a while—and for good reason. I’ll admit that Winslow has spouted off in the press many times before in a T.O.-like manner for no apparent reason other than attention.

However, he had every right to bring the handling of his infection to the press. Winslow went on record saying, “There's obviously a problem [with staph] and we have to fix it. Just look at the history around here. It's unfortunate, because it happens time and time again."

He was referring to recent history of an alarming amount of other former Browns players infected, including Braylon Edwards and LeCharles Bentley.

For his comments, Winslow was fined one game by the team for the aforementioned comments and saying he felt like a “piece of meat.”

He believed management purposely withheld the details of his infection from his teammates for the sake of saving face. There was a minor uproar from fellow players, fans and the medical community.

Winslow Jr. was in the hospital for several days in October of that year for an infection he believed the Browns tried to cover up. To demonstrate how serious this is, think about the effect the infection had on him.

Supposedly, one of his testicles swelled to the size of a small grapefruit —I know, it made me cringe just as much writing it as I’m sure it was to read.

MRSA knows no boundaries

MRSA doesn’t play favorites and attack NFL players exclusively. In the past, NBA stars such as Paul Pierce, Kenyon Martin, and Grant Hill were sidelined for considerable amounts of time.  MLB players with first-hand knowledge of staph are Alex Rios, J.T Snow, and Kyle Farnsworth.

The hard-throwing pitcher was out three weeks after he was infected thanks to a mosquito bite providing an entry point into his body.

“At first, I thought it was a spider bite, so I itched it, and that might have helped it spread. I had it looked at and the doctors said, 'That's no spider bite.' It was my push-off leg, so I was concerned. I looked down and it was red all the way from my thigh to my kneecap. It was pretty scary," according to Farnsworth.

Longtime San Francisco Giants slugger and class act, J.T Snow, has been forever impacted by the perils of staph infections.

Before announcing plays for the St. Louis Rams as a broadcaster, Snow’s father, Jack Snow, was making them for the Los Angeles Rams on the field from 1965-1975.

In 2005, he went in to have a double-hip replacement. Some time after that he was infected with a nasty strain of staph—likely originating during his operation.

J.T said his father seemed fine after the surgery and was actually enjoying activities such as golf that he was unable to do for a while before his surgery. Soon after that, the Snow family was dealt a gut-wrenching blow.

According to Snow, “This thing is like a ticking time bomb. Once you get to where my dad was, where the infection has taken over your body, there’s nothing else you can do, and you’re kind of screwed.

"It’s all very scary. The worst thing people can do is cover these things up. They need to go public with every case, because there needs to be more education and awareness across the board.”

After reading that, it’s no surprise J.T. Snow supported Winslow’s choice to explain his thoughts about the way the Browns handled his case with the media.

Prevention is the best game plan

Grant Hill was in the prime of his career when a MRSA infection on his ankle caused convulsions and a high-grade fever. He fortunately recovered almost six months later and joined the “Stop MRSA Now!” public service announcement.

"When I was diagnosed with an MRSA infection, it was hard to get information about the illness or even how to help prevent the spread of it. This infection is becoming an issue in community settings across the country and that is why, as an athlete and a father, I have joined STOP MRSA Now to offer a playbook on prevention so that everyone can get in the game to help reduce the spread of MRSA," Hill stated.

According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control):

Education of athletes and coaches, good personal hygiene, and disinfection of shared equipment are essential to reduce MRSA infection in sports. 

The CDC has provided guidelines to control MRSA infections among athletes:

  1. Cover wounds or exclude a player until healed
  2. Ensure availability of adequate soap and hot water
  3. Encourage good hygiene (showering and washing with soap after all practices and competitions)
  4. Discourage sharing of towels and personal items, such as clothing or equipment
  5. Establish routine cleaning schedules for shared equipment
  6. Train athletes and coaches in first-aid for wounds and recognition of wounds that are potentially infected
  7. Encourage athletes to report skin lesions to coaches and ask coaches to assess athletes regularly for skin lesions

There are thousands of different ways that athletes can be hurt simply by the normal movements, requirements and punishment the human body experiences on the playing field.

It’s absolutely mandatory that those at the vanguard of all different levels of sports make sure the proper precautions to stem the effects of these ‘hidden’ dangers are in place.

This is especially true for the amateur and high school ranks where they aren’t privy to the same resources that the professional ranks have access to.

Unbiased and stealthy, Staph infections are an issue that all of us, from Super Bowl champions locker rooms to everyday people in local gyms, must know the precautionary steps to take.


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