On Second Thought: Steelers @ Bengals and the State of the NFL
Photo via Steelers.com
Well, it’s official. JuJu and George Iloka both got hit, so to speak, with a one-game suspension for their hits on Monday night. Not that I want to be missing JuJu, but at one level I’m glad. I think the Iloka hit was worse than JuJu’s, despite AB seemingly not being affected and Burfict putting on an Oscar-worthy performance, but whatever. If the league wants to legislate such hits out of the game, they are going to have to do more than they have so far. Fines don’t seem to be getting the players’ attention, especially when you can be fined more for wearing something non-regulation than you can for potentially endangering someone’s life or livelihood.
And I’m frankly appalled that Rob Gronkowski only got one game for his hit. If you haven’t seen it, look it up. It was sickening. It was long after the play was over. JuJu’s could be viewed (as some already have) as just good football, but where he hit Burfict is illegal, whether he meant it to be or not. Iloka’s could be viewed (as some already have) as a bang-bang play where he couldn’t redirect at the last moment (although he probably could have.) But there was no excuse whatsoever for Gronk’s hit. It was late, it was deliberate, and it was ugly. Am I just a Steelers homer and conspiracy theorist to think that there is something suspicious in Gronk getting only a one-game suspension, when they play the Steelers week after next?
But all of this brings up a larger issue. The elephant in the room, as Mike Tomlin might say, becomes pretty obvious when you see something you can’t unsee—Ryan Shazier being carted off the field, legs immobile, clearly seriously injured. Even if this turns out to be the best-case scenario, as it seems it might—temporary loss of feeling, returning as the swelling of the spinal cord eases up—it brings home the reality that these guys could be killed for our entertainment.
I’m actually glad that Shazier’s injury was, if you will, self-inflicted. The atmosphere in Bengals/Steelers tilts is electric enough without adding the strong temptation for frontier justice to to the mix.
Personally, I’ve had enough of this particular rivalry. There are some quality guys on the Cinci team, despite the ownership’s known penchant for saving money by getting discounted talent that comes with major character issues. I’m a big fan of second chances, after all, and it isn’t as if the Steelers haven’t taken a flyer on a few such guys themselves. (I’m happy it’s come back to bite them, really. Sorry for the guys, happy that it hasn’t paid off for the Steelers.) Andy Dalton is as solid a citizen as you will find in any locker room in the league. In fact, I don’t know anything negative about 90% of the team, or more. But Marvin Lewis, who is also by all accounts a solid guy, apparently can’t do enough to keep a lid on the others.
And it wasn’t just the Bengals cheap-shotting on Monday, although “cheap-shotting” is a loaded term which can be defined very differently depending on who is doing the looking. I would love to see those two teams just play football for once.
But this brings up the big question—should football even be played? Major changes were instituted in the college game in Teddy Roosevelt’s era because of a rash of deaths on the football field. We may be reaching a similar Rubicon with professional football. And I’m guessing that if something isn’t done the NFL will continue to lose viewership. There were likely a number of people who turned off the TV after Shazier’s injury, and might not turn it back on for a while.
Which brings up the whole question—what is the purpose of professional sports? Because as I pondered this question I realized that such injuries are not peculiar to football. One only has to think of the many months Sidney Crosby had to spend in a darkened room, with the ever-present possibility that he might never play again, to realize hockey is hardly safer than the NFL. The number of injuries per game might be lower—I wouldn’t know without research I don’t currently have the time to conduct—but they play an awful lot more games. Or what about the line drive comebacker to the mound Ryan Vogelsong took in the head a few years ago? Or seeing the picture of Francisco Cervelli (Pirate’s catcher) in the locker room after a relatively normal game of baseball in which he looked as if he had gone 12 rounds in a boxing match he lost, badly. Sports are, by their very nature, meant to subject the human body to stuff it isn’t used to and not made for. If they are contact sports, this is amplified.
So should we be watching it at all? Does it have any redeeming qualities for the observers? Plenty of people would say no. I might have been one of those, a mere 10 years ago, if I was being honest.
What about for the players? What about the opportunities sports affords them—”free” college “education” for one? (I put the qualifiers on for Ivan’s sake—I still think there is potential value there, if a player chooses to exercise it.) And honestly, for many of the players, sports are one of the only avenues out of places like Liberty City, where Antonio Brown grew up, and where a lot of his contemporaries are dead or in jail. What about the Dominican baseball players who make up such a large part of MLB? Could we find other ways to help these young men?
In theory, yes. In actuality? I don’t see a lot of such activity going on. A lot of what there is comes via “players giving back”—foundations such as the one Cameron Heyward began, or Antonio Brown being involved with the players at Clairton High School, or the myriad of football camps run by everyone from Ben Roethlisberger on down. Or, for that matter, the initiatives by coaches such as Mike Tomlin and his wife, who are involved to one degree or another in a number of causes, the latest being the human trafficking one.
The guys on the afternoon sports radio show (Joe Starkey and Chris Mueller) asked their listeners “at what point does it cross the line for you and you will no longer watch?” This is the question I’ve been asking myself since the moment Shazier was down and it was clear this wasn’t an ordinary injury. So far the answer is, I don’t know.
And then the question is, do things get better or worse if football becomes marginalized as a sport because a bunch of middle class white people like myself become too “good,” if you will, to watch it? Who does this help? Just because I choose not to see something doesn’t mean it has gone away. This was the point made by the founder of OUR (the human trafficking organization the Steelers are now partnered with.) We don’t want to see this stuff so we pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s only when enough people are confronted by the reality that things can change.
And things probably would change if a lot of people like me stopped watching. But again I ask, for the better? Better for who? The players? Probably not. I’m guessing that if football were to be marginalized, all the player safety initiatives would quietly go away, as the people who continued to watch would likely be the ones who lamented the passing of old-school football and welcome the violence.
In the meantime, there would be a lot less money to go around, and so the players would be taking greater risks for less compensation, and probably even less help down the road if and when they need it. Because there are not only guys who need to play football or baseball or some other sport as a way out of the seeming inevitability of their circumstances, there are guys who love it. T.J. Watt could probably do a lot of other things, but he loves football. At this point in his life, little else interests him, to hear him (and those around him) tell it. Tyler Matakevich seems the same. I’m sure there are some guys who are attracted to the money and the fame, but I’m guessing if they don’t love the game they don’t last long enough to make it to the NFL.
And what is it that attracts us to sports as viewers? Part of it is the chance to see people doing amazing things. One of the reasons I first started to take an interest in football was because I saw Troy Polamalu do something otherworldly. It was probably all in a day’s work for him—he was running towards a bunch of blockers, and then somehow ended up on the other side of them, seemingly having run right over the top of them on his way to the quarterback. As my grandson would say, you don’t see that every day.
And that’s the point. We can watch people doing things, through a combination of hard work and God-given gifts, that we can’t even imagine the human body being capable of. Whether it is watching a ballerina or an Olympic skater or Sidney Crosby or Paul Goldschmidt or Antonio Brown, we are captivated by what they can do. And we must never forget that what they do comes at a cost. It can be the cost of having knee problems the rest of their lives, or potentially being injured on a play that will, in one second, change the trajectory of their lives. In the case of the Olympian, they have lost their entire youth to preparing for this. And in every case, for each one that does make it to the New York City Ballet or the Olympics or the NHL or MLB or NFL there are a great many who don’t—probably hundreds or more for every one that does make it.
And perhaps that’s what we stand to gain from watching this. We are watching people who have overcome adversity of all kinds and persevered, often in the case of great discouragement—how many top receivers come from Central Michigan?—to achieve something remarkable. Don’t forget that even the lowliest schlub in the NFL is better at what he does than almost everyone else on the planet.
Not everyone feels this way, of course. I know plenty of people who would rather have a root canal than go to a ballet. Plenty of people would rather watch paint dry than go to a baseball game, on the theory that it is more exciting. And heaven knows plenty of people think I am wasting my time on the Steelers. (Actually, a large percentage of everyone I know thinks this, since I know a lot of “artsy” people.) I’m sure there are “better” uses of my time, but that’s not really the issue. The question for me is, am I an enabler? And if so, is that in the bad or the good sense?
These are questions no one can answer for me. Obviously I’m not even able to answer them for myself yet. Perhaps the time will come. In the meantime, the only obvious thing is, I should have saved the “Are you not entertained?” headline for this week.