Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens could suffer a career-ending injury should he play in Sunday's Super Bowl, and the team is ethically obligated to prevent him from taking such a risk, according to local medical specialists.
Boston area orthopedic experts said Owens's injury, a fractured right fibula and torn lower leg ligament, could easily be aggravated by a hard hit, an uneven landing, or a sudden pivot -- all in a day's work for an NFL receiver.
Moreover, despite Owens's claims of fitness, his physical skills are likely impaired by his injury, according to the specialists. They said it would be unwise -- and unethical -- for the Eagles to ignore the advice of Owens's surgeon, Dr. Mark Myerson. The president of the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society, Myerson has said Owens should not play.
Dr. William Morgan knows something about stars playing in crucial games despite serious injuries. The Red Sox team doctor until December, Morgan devised a clever temporary fix to allow Curt Schilling to pitch with a dislocated ankle tendon during the American League Championship Series and World Series last fall. But Morgan said Owens, unlike Schilling, risks permanent damage if he plays.
"He could suffer a career-ending injury if someone hits him in a certain way below the knee," said Morgan, of St. Elizabeth's Medical Center.
The lower leg has two bones, the tibia and the fibula. Holding them firmly in place is the tough, fibrous interosseous ligament. On Dec. 19, Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams tackled Owens from behind, severely twisting his right ankle. The force of the twist ripped his interosseous ligament and fractured his fibula about 10 centimeters below his knee, according to Eagles doctors. The injury destroyed Owens's ability to put weight on his right ankle.
Surgeons put two metal screws through both his tibia and fibula to stabilize them so the body could naturally repair the damage.
Brigham and Women's Hospital foot and ankle specialist Dr. Chris Chiodo said he would "typically immobilize these types of injuries for months." The torn ligament usually takes two months or more to properly heal, said medical experts.
"If you don't adequately immobilize the ankle and the ligaments so they heal, you are at risk for chronic instability of that joint," said Chiodo, who added that aggravating the tear during the Super Bowl could result in permanent damage to the ankle joint that is "potentially career-ending."
Dr. Paul Weitzel, a sports medicine specialist at Tufts-New England Medical Center, agreed.
"The Eagles have an ethical obligation to very seriously consider Dr. Myerson's recommendations," Weitzel said. "I've never had a patient who has defied recommendations as strongly as [Owens] has."
The experts interviewed said Owens's injury will also hamper his ability to play. Though Owens said he is convinced God has healed him and has sought to display his health by running during practices this week, doctors said the ligament tear would make it harder for him to pivot and change direction while running.
"I will say that sometimes, even with the most determined player, subconsciously the body keeps you from doing what you want to do or what you think you can do," said Chiodo. "He thinks he can get out there, he may have all the drive in the world, but his body won't let him."
The Eagles' coaches have said they will monitor Owens in practice this week before making a decision on his playing status. Morgan, the former Red Sox physician, said the decision to sideline him should be clear.
"The obligation of the team physician is to treat him just like a patient that came to see him as if he wasn't a football player but just a normal patient," he said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the view from one Philadelphia expert is different. University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist Arthur Caplan said the decision should ultimately be in Owens's hands.
"They have to ask Owens how bad he wants to play in this game. Is he willing to put his whole career and income on the line?" said Caplan. "In America, you get a lot of discretion to make bad choices."
But medical experts in Boston said Owens would not be able to gauge his own health. Though the screws in his leg may feel solid, and the pain minimal, the reality is that Owens's ankle likely remains highly vulnerable to injury.
"No matter how good of a healer he says he is, it doesn't change his anatomy," said Dr. Tammy Martin, orthopedics chief for the Boston Veterans Affairs health care system and doctor for several college teams. "You can't with any good medical common sense allow someone like him to play."
Raja Mishra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.