Oakland Raiders: Is The NFL Putting Players At Unnecessary Risk?

Nov 15, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders fans cheer before the start of the game against the Minnesota Vikings at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 15, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders fans cheer before the start of the game against the Minnesota Vikings at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

The Oakland Raiders are set to square off with the Texans in Mexico City on Monday night – but Houston isn’t the only thing the team will have to battle.

For all of the talk about player health and safety, the NFL is putting the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans in a precarious position with their Monday night game in Mexico City. Sure, it expands the reach of “the Shield” and – combined with the games in London – gives it more of a global notoriety, but it is potentially putting the health and safety at risk.

To be sure, it’s a historic and beautiful setting that Oakland and Houston will be playing in. It also happens to be in a setting at a far higher altitude than Denver and one that has extreme problems with pollution – both things that can be harmful to an athlete given their extreme exertions.

Denver’s Sports Authority Field sits at 5,280 feet – a mile up. The air is incredibly thin, which has led to some astounding kicks, but also health concerns for some players. For instance, Tevin Coleman of the Atlanta Falcons and former safety Ryan Clark both carried the Sickle Cell trait and playing at an altitude that high put them both at risk because of it.

Azteca Stadium in Mexico City far eclipses Denver, sitting at 7,280 feet above sea level. Not only could that be hazardous to those who carry the Sickle Cell trait, but it could be hazardous to players in general, given their extreme physical exertions.

And not only will players have to battle the altitude, they’ll also have to fight their way through the extreme levels of pollution endemic to the area.

Eric Wynalda, a former star with the US National Soccer Team, who has played in Azteca Stadium on numerous occasions, offered this insight:

"“Azteca Stadium is the worst place to ever play a sporting event. You can’t breathe. The pollution is so bad that if you don’t have some form of rain that’s brought all that down you are going to be sucking wind. They (will) break a record for how many oxygen masks they have on the sidelines. The combination of being that high up with pollution is just devastating to the body.”"

But sports medicine and respiration doctor Jorge Avendano Reyes doesn’t believe that an increased number of oxygen masks will necessarily help.

"“There can be headaches, dizziness, sensation of fatigue, accelerated heartbeat, hyperventilation. We can also have respiratory symptoms, when we are exposed often to the pollution. The amount of oxygen that reaches the cells decreases, leading to the faster heartbeat and cardiac activity. The body tries to ventilate more quickly.”"

The effects of the altitude and pollution on athletes has primarily been focused on soccer players who tend to be leaner. The effects of the conditions in Azteca Stadium on men who are 300 pounds and more is as of yet, unknown.

Added Wynalda:

"“For American football I really am curious to see how these guys handle it. It is going to have a massive effect on their body. These are some big bodies out there, 300 pounds people who are trying to get oxygen into their muscles and to their brains. I think you will see a lot of delay of game penalties.”"

Playing a game in other countries makes sense on a certain level. One of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s biggest drives is to expand the reach of the NFL. He wants to make it a global brand. And in large part, his efforts have been successful.

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Although the series of games played over in England’s Wembley Stadium have, by and large, been subpar affairs, they’ve been very well received. Goodell and the league have done a good job of opening up the European market with future games scheduled in different venues around England. There is even talk about a future game in China, though that has yet to come to fruition.

Which is all well and good. But playing a game in Mexico City, with the elevation and the pollution problems inherent with the venue seems to go against one of Goodell’s other stated objectives – protecting the health and well being of the NFL players.

This not to say that Mexico isn’t a viable market for an NFL game – perhaps even a franchise one day. But playing in conditions like the ones the Raiders and Texans will encounter in Azteca Stadium are extreme. They’re hazardous. And they could very well put the health of some players in jeopardy.

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Though this game will be played – and hopefully, nobody will suffer any ill effects because of it – Goodell and the league should give serious thought to conditions before forcing teams to play in the venues they choose.

Expanding the reach and making the NFL a global brand isn’t inherently a bad thing. But putting players at risk to do so, is.