In an interview with Jenny Vrentas, former Viking great Fran Tarkenton discusses this year’s crop of rookie quarterbacks (including the Vikings’ Teddy Bridgewater), the NFL’s ongoing disciplinary issues with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, the long-term issues with NFL doctors dispensing painkillers, and the advent of performance-enhancing drugs. On the issue of league discipline, he believes the league should not allow Rice or Peterson to play again:
VRENTAS: Are you saying the Vikings should move on from Peterson because of his age, or because of the child abuse case that led to his suspension?
TARKENTON: I followed the Clippers thing. That owner [Donald Sterling] didn’t get indicted for any crime, but the racial comments he made were totally inappropriate, and we took a stand. The whole world and the NBA, we have zero tolerance to racism. And I think that’s right. I agree with that. But I also think we ought to have zero tolerance to child abuse and domestic violence. I don’t think [Peterson] should play again in the NFL. I don’t think Ray Rice should play again. Either we have zero tolerance, or we don’t. And what is more egregious than domestic violence and child abuse? I don’t know of anything, unless you kill somebody.
VRENTAS: Peterson has not played since the child-abuse charges first surfaced in September, and now he’s been suspended for the rest of the season, pending appeal. Do you think the response shows that teams and the league are starting to take these issues more seriously?
TARKENTON: Kind of. They have been a little bit wishy-washy. [The Vikings] were going to play Adrian Peterson [before reversing course in September]. Other teams were going to play other players [involved in cases of domestic violence]. And the NFL was going to give just a two-game suspension to Ray Rice. I don’t think we’ve gotten beyond “win at any cost” yet. And I think we need to get there. We should have zero tolerance to racism. We don’t believe that, right? Is that more important than zero tolerance to domestic abuse and child abuse? Unless we as a society think that way, then we won’t make progress. And the whole domestic violence thing, that has been tolerated universally, but certainly in the NFL. We can’t tolerate that. All these behaviors that are so egregious continue. We need to set an example.
And on the topic of team doctors and the use of drugs to get players back into games (but which had potentially serious long-term health implicatons:
VRENTAS: You wrote a letter to the New York Times regarding painkiller abuse, in response to the DEA’s recent spot checks of NFL team medical staffs. This has been a subject you have been vocal about. What was your experience with painkiller use during your playing career?
TARKENTON: This has been going on forever. I was playing for the New York Giants, and I hurt my shoulder in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I came in at halftime, and the doctor had a great big long needle, punched a few different places, and told me, “Show me where it hurts the worst.” I said, “Ow,” and he jammed a combination of xylocaine and cortisone into my shoulder. That’s not good for my shoulder, but he’s my team doctor. I don’t think he’s going to do something that hurts my career, right? He’s like my family doctor. If my family doctor tells me to take a pill, I’ll take a pill. So every Friday, I went on the subway from old Yankee Stadium, where we practiced, all the way down to lower Manhattan to St. Vincent’s Hospital, and they did the same thing they did at halftime. They shot my shoulder. It didn’t really help me, but it allowed me to play. Now, when I come back to Minnesota, my shoulder is worse. The year we played the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl in New Orleans, my shoulder was already deteriorating, and I hurt it early in the season in Dallas. The rest of the year I could not throw a ball in practice; I could not throw a ball in warm-ups over 10 yards. When I got in the game, I could throw it maybe 40 yards, because my adrenaline was up, but there was nothing on it. But every Friday, guess what they shot me with? Butazolidin. That’s what they shot horses with. Shot me up every Friday, all the way to the Super Bowl. I retired at age 39, and I see my doctors down here [in Atlanta] because my shoulder is killing me. They say, “You’ve got the shoulder of a 75-year old man. You need your shoulder replaced.” I talked to a lot of the old guys — Roger Staubach, Otto Graham, Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Y.A. Tittle — and none of them had shoulders replaced. I had my shoulder replaced, because they shot me up. Where was the conscience back then? People say, “You knew what they were doing.” I knew what they were doing, but I didn’t think they would hurt me. I didn’t think my shoulder was going to fall apart.