What About Ryan?

Photo via Steelers.com

By Ivan Cole

As they say, the show must go on. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say that we didn’t see this coming? That what happened to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was some shocking freak accident that no one could have anticipated.

This may be true for some, but if you are a thinking observer of pro football that would probably be a lie. It wasn’t if, it was when.

Actually, what happened isn’t close to the worst-case scenario. There is no indication of permanent paralysis, nor did Shazier die. If either had happened we would have undoubtedly been shocked, but not surprised. We would be forced to acknowledge that our luck had finally run out. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

I have been writing for several years about issues related to the physical risks involved with the game and the dehumanization and commodification of those who play it that fuels the ambiguity and complicity necessary for our continuing support. Some will certainly come down on the absolute extremes of the issue, calling for the end of this barbaric spectacle on one hand, or sniffing dismissively that they knew what they were signing up for, and are being paid handsomely besides, on the other. I suspect that for the majority, neither position quite satisfies.

Consider this piece by Damon Young in The Root (language alert). The fact that Young is a Pittsburgh native makes some of his observations particularly on point in terms of this situation.

One statement really struck home:

I’m not interested in the NFL as a whole—an apathy that’s been gradually building over the last decade—but I still have an emotional and spiritual investment with the Steelers.

Along with a growing number of formerly highly dedicated fans I have been (“gradually”) moving into this space. This incident, especially because it involved a Steeler, will certainly accelerate the sense of estrangement felt by a growing number of fans. But it is a complex matter, not black and white at all.

So, just like Ben Roethlisberger, I struggle trying to reconcile my love for the game against what is best for my integrity and the community at large.

In addition, there are factors that impact the decision- making process in a, mostly, negative way. I will address these in ascending order.

The Media

There should be a special place in Hell for instigators. Factually and intuitively, we are aware that much of sports media is, at best, two faced about promoting much of the violence and depravity that is currently an unnecessary part of the game, while, metaphorically speaking, clutching their pearls and getting the vapors when the consequences of said violence manifests.

Sports media is in a peculiar and precarious position. They are, in many cases deeply entangled as business partners in the financial success of the activity that they are pretending to be reporting on impartially. This leads to quality and integrity issues, ranging from the policy changes that eventually resulted in the genesis of this site to the insatiable demand to generate numbers and clicks through whatever means necessary, to the cynical, yet accurate (to me at least) observation by Homer of the Jon Gruden/Vontaze Burfict nuptials. As unfortunate as the Shazier injury was, we must be grateful for the fact that the circumstances which caused it were relatively benign.

A couple of things that can be infuriating to thinking people concerning a supposedly vigilant media. How is Vontaze Burfict even in the league at this point? With full acknowledgement of my Steelers bias, this is an individual who in 2015 took out all three of Pittsburgh’s Killer Bees (Ben’s shoulder, Le’Veon Bell’s knees, and concussed Antonio Brown). All three hits were designed to maim. That’s what he does.

But, on the other hand, this sort of thing makes for great entertainment. Steelers/Bengals wasn’t being broadcast in primetime for nothing. And it will be a safe bet that they will get two national platforms again next year.

Maybe somebody may really die next time. Tragic, but great television. In a sane football world, Burfict would have lost at least a year of his football life, supplemented by mandatory anger management counseling and, perhaps, a lobotomy. This would be roughly what Martavis Bryant endured for smoking weed.

I know, apples and oranges. Absent that, what options remain for self-protection other than frontier justice? Again, great television, while decrying the violence at the top of their lungs as they run endless replays.

Isn’t this a criticism more appropriately directed at the league? The media is a partner, meaning they are either okay with the decision making, or maybe even driving it. Media could do their part by making Steelers/Bengals a 1:00 game available only in the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati markets until they can prove they are capable of playing civilized football.

You say you are concerned about the perception and future of the game, yet you let Sluggo run wild, unbothered by any legitimate threat of banishment. I can see youth football registration forms thrown in the trash every time he takes the field, egged on by apologists like Gruden.

One other bit of ugliness. Go to Steelers.com and check out the post-game and weekly press conferences with an ear to the questions asked Mike Tomlin related to the condition of Shazier. So enamored were some to get a scoop, that they posed questions about Shazier’s condition that, prior to notification of family, were inappropriate to ask. While there is an understandable level of curiosity, there is no public right to know such things ahead of certain standards being met, and there seemed no awareness that what was transpiring was indecent, leaving the team to play the role of the adults in the room by themselves.

The League

Missing Dan Rooney yet? The potential irony here is that Steelers Nation will survive and thrive his loss, but the rest of the NFL? Maybe not. Let’s just go over a few of the trends that are coming from the league that should be worrisome for those of us who might still have hope for the game’s healthy future:

Three moves that I believe might encourage me that the league really does give a damn about player safety would be increasing roster sizes, guaranteed contracts and dumping Thursday night football. I used to play the game at the high school and college level. I suffered two major injuries, both preceded by a ‘minor’ injury that I played through, in one case motivated in large measure by the fear that to not do so would cost me my position on the team. Shazier suffered an ankle injury previously. Maybe it had no influence at all, but the ethic being what it is, and his durability being consistently questioned, can you definitively rule it out? Given the fact that no credible argument exists that players can be protected against short or long term catastrophic injury, to me guaranteed contracts are an ethical issue. The idea that teams would take a financial hit when players go down may provide some motivation to be more serious about player safety.

Let me remind you that 31 of 32 teams voted in favor of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The one outlier was the Pittsburgh Steelers. I don’t recall all the details of their opposition, but among them was concern of too much arbitrary power at the top under unreliable leadership. Inconsistencies on everything from what qualifies as a pass reception to the circumstances surrounding the cause, length and amounts of suspensions and fines has us traveling an axis that ranges from suspicion of incompetence to corruption.

Contrast the treatment of Burfict with the constant ‘random’ drug tests that James Harrison must endure. Currently, compare the differing treatment of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rob Gronkowski and George Iloka. The disparities among the crimes committed and the punishments meted out are stunning. This has led, among other things, to conspiracy theories that there is a New England bias, and that Gronk’s punishment was calibrated to insure his presence for the big game with the Steelers.

Steelers Nation has been living by the credo of “just because your paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t out to get you” as it relates to the league for years. The idea that there might exist biases (let’s break up the Steelers/promote the Cowboys or Pats) where the league places a thumb on the scale for selected franchises or players are incredibly corrosive, and don’t have to be true to be extremely damaging.

Damon Young’s piece serves to remind us that there are two current boycotts, neither overwhelmingly successful, related to the league currently. One involves the backlash by certain fans to the anthem protests. The other is based upon the belief that Colin Kaepernick is being blackballed by the NFL. Forget what might or might not be true. Perception is trouble enough.

Helping the league navigate this space are the likes of Roger Goodell, Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft. Missing Dan Rooney?

There aren’t many boxing gyms in Fox Chapel

Those words were spoken by Steelers alum Randy Grossman who happens to live in Fox Chapel. To those readers that are unfamiliar, Fox Chapel is an upscale community in the Pittsburgh area. The point that Grossman was making is that if you have other options there won’t be a great deal of interest in boxing. I live in one of the most affluent counties in the United States and can testify that there aren’t many boxing gyms here either, and a lot less football than in other communities. When the evidence began accumulating concerning the potential dangers of playing football at the high levels, one of the questions raised was why anyone put themselves in this position, benefits be damned.

First, until recently few people knew. And even knowing, there is still that little matter of ‘options’. As others have pointed out, the reason why many of the Antonio Browns in the world don’t dump football for, say, investment banking is because the infrastructure and resources essential to pursuing that goal often doesn’t exist in their environments. So, they go to the boxing gym.

It is no accident that football’s popularity is greatest in the poorest quadrant of the country. Boxing provides a cautionary tale of where football may be headed. Within the lifetimes of many reading (and writing) this piece, the sport of boxing was immensely popular. It was featured on primetime television nearly a decade before football and baseball were able to follow suit. Events such as the first Ali-Frazier fight were much more popular and impactful than the Super Bowl or the World Series.

Then someone was beaten to death on primetime. They were respectful enough to not actually expire while the cameras were on, but within a few hours a man was dead.

Quick! Name the heavyweight champion of the world. It didn’t happen all at once, it took a few decades, and Goodell isn’t Don King, not yet at least. It nonetheless puts the lie to the notion that the NFL is too big to fail. There is something else at play here as well.

It may be impossible to quantify now, but, for me at least, is becoming increasingly intuitively obvious. Consciousness and conscience is shifting. We are changing. Unlike football, most people understood the costs involved with boxing and across all demographics found it an acceptable form of entertainment even with the knowledge that the long-term quality of life for the participants would be in the toilet. So, it is interesting to note how many of us who were attracted initially to the game, in part, due to its violence, have become ambivalent and are having difficulty stomaching the carnage.

This is not just in football. Outrages that a generation or two ago would have led to people taking to the streets in violence now evoke expressions of sadness, sarcasm and disgust, but nothing overtly destructive for the most part. I believe it is safe to say that fans are in a period of soul searching now, trying to work out their relationship to a game that we still all love on so many levels, but find deeply problematic in others. What is certain is that changes are coming. Just to suggest one option playing on Grossman’s metaphor: There aren’t many Fox Chapels in Mexico or India. If the American fan base or athletes begin to lose their stomach for the game, there are plenty of places around the world that have their share of ‘boxing gyms’.

25 comments

  • Thank you Ivan for having the perceptiveness and courage to perceive and grapple which many of us, myself included, are unwilling or unable to face head on. Damon Young’s observation certainly hits home. Steelers football is the center of the universe for Little Darlin’ and me, especially in season.

    You’ve given all of us plenty to think about, even as we celebrate this glorious season, made bittersweet by Ryan’s serious injury. We can only hope that somehow, someway, the NFL finds the wisdom to protect the game and the players. We can only hope there is such a way.

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  • Excellent, well written article. Thank you.

    I haven’t looked at any research or polls but my theory as to the decline of boxing is pretty simple. The arrival of a more exciting product, MMA, has made boxing an afterthought for many fans. Boxing purists no doubt lament the decline but there aren’t enough of them to support the industry. The most talented boxers now have to enter the octagon to cash the big checks, and they have to learn and become proficient in more than one fighting discipline. The sport of fighting has evolved and fans don’t have to settle for guys swinging at each other under strict rules forbidding the use of feet, elbows or grappling.

    The statement from Damon Young hits home for me also. I am a passionate Steeler fan but I really couldn’t care less about watching any other games unless they impact the Steelers in some way. For me, that feeling applies to all professional and college athletics. I don’t watch many games not involving “my” team.

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    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      I think boxing’s decline predates the emergence of MMA. I suspect WWE also filled some of the void left by boxing’s decline but only some of it. This is merely anecdotal though as I still don’t know anyone who watched MMA so my sample size is likely skewed by my peer groups (I travel in different circles, most of which completely eschew blood sports). In fact, I know far more people who watch curling than NFL/Boxing/MMA Being Canadian, NHL hockey is an exception but only for now. I only know one person under 30 who watches NHL hockey.

      To take this a bit further, most people I know under the age of 30, are far more likely to be on the computer, console or handheld device than on TV (cable or otherwise). The main exception being when they hook up the console/PC to the TV so they can have a bigger screen. Network and cable TV are in big trouble from what I can tell. The changes to net neutrality in the USA seem to be an attempt to financially milk the internet by a handful of corporations with help from a few appointed officials (the swamp seems bigger than ever these days).

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      • It looks like the NFL and Verizon have seen this and reacted. As of January, any mobile device, and websites under verizon’s umbrella, like Yahoo and aol, will be live streaming IN MARKET games for free. So all of the people who have cut the cable line will be able to watch their local games, and prime time games online. It is a very smart move for both the NFL and verizon, since it allows for more viewers the opportunity to watch the games, and more money from advertisers etc.

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      • I watched an MMA match once, it was plenty. Just to brutal for my taste.
        You and your circle are better off staying away.

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    • I agree that boxing’s decline started well before MMA gained traction.

      In addition to the death that Ivan references, seeing Ali literally render speechless also did its part.

      Beyond that, let me suggest that the popularity of the Rocky movies also was perhaps a turning point. Go back and watch one of them. The fight scenes are incredible. But they’re also pure science fiction (I remember reading a review of Rocky VI that made this exact point.) I honestly think that they set up a very unrealistic expectation of what you could expect to see in a boxing ring.

      And perhaps the rise of the then WWF filled that void to some extent.

      But the boxing analogy is well taken. Back in 2010, in the heyday of BTSC, Michael Bean began warning that football could follow boxing’s fate.

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      • cold_old_steelers_fan

        Good point about Bean. He is missed.

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        • Yeah, Bean was a great guy. Got to meet him in NYC in 2011, just before he left from BTSC, although at the time he wasn’t planning on leaving as editor, just scaling back some of his duties. That changed obviously as he told me with his new gig he didn’t have time. I encouraged him to try to write an article a week or something like that, but that never came of anything.

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    • Boxing’s death was unrelated to the emergence of the MMA.

      Boxing died when it became too confident of its place as a dominant sport, and shifted to an incredibly expensive pay-per-view model to showcase its big events, which cut out the casual or less affluent fan. Without a regular prime-time outlet to draw in casual fans and new fans, very few new fans came to boxing and it kind of faded away.

      The NFL isn’t proposing the ppv model yet, or not exclusively, but it could probably learn from the hubris that led to boxing’s downfall, as a lot of its current actions (aggressively limiting replay videos not hosted on the official platform, arbitrary dispensation of ‘justice’, the pursuit of cash over player safety {TNF} and the longtime refusal to acknowledge CTE, and the resistance to providing medical care for former players) are hallmarks of the same kind of hubris — “we are top dog, so we get to do whatever we want”. It’s not likely to stay that way.

      Personally, I rarely watch any football other than the Steelers’s games. I am tied to the franchise, by long fandom and by the sense that they do things “the right way”, but I share the ambivalence expressed here by Ivan and elsewhere by other writers on the site, where I find it harder and harder to justify my fandom in the face of the growing knowledge of the costs of the game and the NFL’s hypocrisy on that front.

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  • Well done. Great piece.

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  • Besides the fact that Ryan got hurt, I was particularly upset with HOW he got hurt. He led with his helmet. I hit the rewind button and called my oldest over to watch the replay. I asked him what was wrong with that tackle? He immediately said “He led with his helmet”. I know heads up tackling came about after Ryan learned how to play football, but they should be coaching it at all levels now. Head up, chest out with your shoulders back. Drive, wrap up and roll through.

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    • I agree. As bad as that injury was, Ryan did it to himself with his technique. He has done that his entire career too. I wish it didn’t happen and he was still playing, but, if he does come back to football, I hope this is a wake up call and a teaching moment for him. Either way, and especially since it looks like he will recover, if not fully, at least close enough, to be a teaching moment and an example for the youth of why you don’t lead with the crown of your helmet.

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  • Great piece Ivan. I think we are all blessed that we had BTSC to read while it was not clickbait and now GDS (Thanks Mamma For creating the site).

    From my standpoint, what is hurting the league the most is the lack of consistency. From penalty calls to what is or isn’t a catch, to fines and suspensions, the inconsistency confuses and enrages many, many fans, me included. It has gotten to the point where, anytime a big play happens, the first thought I have is not HOLY *&^*(^ THAT WAS AWESOME!, but “is it a catch?” or ” is there a penalty?”. It makes a game very frustrating and somewhat anticlimactic to watch.

    I was pretty stunned and couldn’t understand why Gruden was going gaga over burfict during the broadcast of the Steelers/Bengals, going as far as to say he would love to have burfict on his team if he was coaching. I think even his cocommentator was a bit stunned by that admission.

    From all the football i have seen, read about, listened to, I would say there are 2 dirty players in the NFL at this time. burfict and Suh. The rest of the players with the label of “dirty” toe the line between hard hitting and dirty pretty darned well, playing within the rules of the game, aside from some unfortunate plays that were pretty much unavoidable. The 2 players mentioned above go well beyond the line, and beyond the whistle to try to injure players.

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  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Great piece, as usual. It is sad that the topic is so disturbing but these discussions need to happen.

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  • Absolutely spectacular piece, Ivan.

    The decline of boxing seems to track inversely to the rise ofthe NFL and of professional wrestling, which had much better marketing, local “promotions” (Bruno and Ace Freeman ran the Pittsburgh promotion for Toots Mondt and later McMahon), and a savvy use of television and then cable, including a tie-in with rock and roll and then pay per view.

    Thanks to kayfabe, wrestlers could go at it several times a week, while boxers might do one fight every month or two.

    Boxing still has its fans in Los Angeles and New York, cheering on ethnic favorites from Mexico, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.
    But there are fewer and fewer native born Americans among the top boxers. And a real shortage of the American ethnics.
    Where have you gone Carmine Basilio, Joey Giardello, and Alonzo Johnson?

    The vast American audiences tired of the “sweet science,” but only partly because Benny “Kid” Paret got killed by Emile Griffith after he called Griffith a maricon. Paret’s death may have caused Howard Cosell to call for boxing to be banned, but few fans of violence really cared about what Cosell or the other sportswriters thought.

    The great masses of Americans of the genus rubis boobis Americanus (as Mencken called them), were determined to have their violence. There was plenty of violence on television, as the NFL itself eclipsed baseball and boxing. And there was wrestling, with better story lines and a world championship once a month at the Civic Arena or War Memorial Arena in your home town.

    Few needed or cared for boxing any more, because instant replays of brutal hits — and guys leaping off the turnbuckle — were far more entertaining.

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  • What is life without risk and danger? It is a life not worth living IMO. Likewise my sport interest follows along with my outlook for risk and danger. I understand everyone has a different tolerance for risk and danger. For you others go root for “small ball” sports. Double entendre intended.

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  • I know nothing about the end of boxing in other places, but where I grew up in Western PA close to the Ohio border, boxing was over when Boom Boom Mancini killed someone. That’s how I remember people saying it: Boom Boom killed a guy. I’ve never heard of the people Homer mentioned so that I thought that’s who Ivan was referencing but I guess not. Perhaps BB was not nationally known or even important to anyone else?

    For those around me, it was all about Boom Boom in what? The mid to late 70’s, maybe the early 80’s. I really ought to have looked this up before starting to type. I’ve occasionally wondered what became of him. He’d been a Youngstown Ohio/ western PA Italian and small town hero, maybe 2nd or 3rd generation boxer if I remember correctly. I even think his dad was Boom Boom, as if he inherited the name. Not that I was paying a lot of attention but these were things you knew because “everyone knew” all about him. I have a weird memory of someone telling me about Boom Boom visiting a high school, as if being a boxer was something small town kids could aspire to as a career. Then he fought someone who died and no one wanted to talk about him anymore and suddenly boxing wasn’t so much fun to watch.

    It was nothing dramatic, at least not how I remember it but I was pretty young then. I don’t remember anyone saying a word about brutality or risk or anything else but things definitely changed. Maybe it was just a stepping away, a stepping back, a lack of enthusiasm. That was it. Most people lost heart for it– that’s the best I can describe it. Nothing about M whatever fighting or pay t.v. or wrestling. So yes, perhaps the same will happen with football. I think it’s already starting.

    Thanks for the article, Ivan, painful as it is. Yes we knew this was coming and yes we got lucky.

    I keep turning two things over in my head: one, that if Shazier had jumped up after a few moments on the ground or had a miraculous recovery in the hospital, we would have shelved all these thoughts and allowed ourselves to celebrate and to continue to ignore, again, what we all knew was coming. What does that mean about us? And, two, the title of an article Rebecca wrote some time ago: Why I still love football. Because I do.

    Someone–Hemingway, Fitzgerald, a writer of that generation–defined intelligence as the ability to hold 2 contradictory ideas at the same time and still function. I see that young man’s smile from his hospital bed, I watch Tomlin’s amazing press conferences afterwards (could anyone have shepherded a team and a fandom with as much grace and strength as he has?) and I don’t think I’m entirely capable of holding up the “functioning” part of that right now, or perhaps at all.

    Earthling

    And yet or of course–Go Steelers!

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  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    There always seems to be a certain amount of illogical thought in people. There is enough of it in evidence that I believe it is a feature* rather than a flaw else evolution would have bred it out of us by now though at times it can be maddening. It is probably the thing in us that keeps us from drowning our children when they are acting up.

    Boom Boom’s infamy was celebrated in song by Warren Zevon that was released in 1987. The fight in question was Nov 13, 1982. Mancini boxed for another 10 years after that.

    * If it wasn’t a feature then it is vestigial thing much like an appendix though now that I think of it, I believe someone found a possible purpose for the appendix.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The appendix assists with homeostasis and immunological functions. It is especially important early in life when the immune system is not fully developed.

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  • With all due respect, Mr. Young lost me, and lost any sort of agreement or sharing of his article, when he made this statement:

    “Shazier has a broken spine because of the naturally occurring dynamic of the sport he was playing. He almost died specifically because he was doing his job exactly how it’s supposed to be done.”

    With all due respect to Mr. Shazier, he did NOT do his job “…exactly how it’s supposed to be done”. Shazier led with the crown of his head and eyes down. Look at the slow motion replay; head down, leading with the crown. This created a “piston effect” transferring the force of his blow (and the opposite force of the momentum of the opposing player) straight down his spine.

    This is NOT proper tackling technique. Had his head been up, angled to the side as you’re supposed to do, most likely this injury would not have happened. I’m not “blaming” Mr. Shazier, but nor do I want to leave unchallenged the thought that in some way, the game itself is to be blamed either.

    Where I also adamantly diverge from Mr. Young’s article, and where I differ from Mr. Cole in this matter as well, is that while I have a great deal of compassion for players like Mr. Shazier and any other player who suffers life changing injuries during the course of the game, I understand and appreciate and honor their efforts and sacrifice; I don’t find myself pulling away from watching them play, I find myself still fully engaged.

    Let me elaborate.

    I understand what draws them to the game. Forget the money part; they would never have gotten as far as the NFL if they didn’t love the game. They didn’t spend years upon years of their young lives enduring what they endured each and every practice for the money.

    They were drawn to the game for the competitiveness of it; for the raw strength and power of it. They love the thrill of executing a play; of laying a hit; of bonding together with a group of people into a collective unit that then goes out and competes against another collective unit.

    I played high level rugby in college and grad school. I know of what I speak. I had never played rugby before my college freshman year, but I was drawn to the game the same way NFL players were drawn to football. Unless you’ve played such a sport competitively (paid or unpaid), you just can’t understand what draws the players to it.

    I also spent two years skydiving; I also drag race.

    Some people are drawn to physical and dangerous activities. The risks are known, and yet we still participate.

    My very first competitive match in rugby; I tackled the running opponent, along with a gaggle of my teammates, and in the midst of the ensuing scrum of players, ended upside down. The crown of my head was jammed into the ground, my body thrown exactly vertical, with the flying bodies of the other players impacting me from all sides. I felt my neck bend in unnatural ways, and I remember to this day the image and thought that ran through my mind; I’m gonna break my neck.

    The ball was released, the play moved on, and as I fell, the only thought then was to get my a** up and go get that ball. One might say my “blood was up” and I had a blast.

    I knew the risk; I was on the precipice of a life-altering injury, but kept playing regardless. I loved the physical-ness of the sport; I loved the demands it made on me physically, mentally, emotionally. And I played for 8 years in various leagues, until such time as my knees would no longer allow me to play at the level I wanted.

    And I miss engaging in such physical team-related activities to this day. Badly.

    So, while I turn away from actually seeing such an injury, and my heart aches for the person suffering one, I don’t turn away from the sport itself, for IMHO to do so dishonors and disrespects the very motivations these athletes have to drive them to the level of physical, mental and emotional strength they have achieved.

    I’m there with them, on the field or on the pitch, remembering the feeling of sweat flowing into my eyes, my lungs bursting, and then the adrenaline rush of the tackle, the score, my legs pumping and feet pounding on the hard, dry dirt as I run down the sidelines as fast and hard as I possibly can and ever could…

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    • I understand your points PaVa, and their validity within the context that you have placed them, but I believe that the situation is more complex then you have characterized it.

      First, let’s get one thing off the table. Risk cannot be eliminated from football or any number of other activities. Soccer has a concussion risk. Auto racing, baseball, ice hockey, skiing, gymnastics, the list goes on where catastrophic and even fatal injuries are possible. That being said, a few other points need to added concerning risk.

      I challenge the assertion that men are drawn to the game and participate for one reason only. Some did the dangerous job of working in coal mines and steel mills because they believed that it was honorable labor, and perhaps hoped that their children might follow in their footsteps, while others did so in the hope that they could rise to the point where their children would never have to do something so distasteful. When a group of aspiring medical doctors were asked what they would do if they could not get admitted to medical school, some named other health care professions while a large number cited becoming lawyers, the connection being similar level of prestige and earning potential. While I certainly agree (and hope) that in most cases players are motivated as you were, I am also confident that if football offered the same level of prestige and compensation as rugby, others would drop the sport like a hot potato.

      Risk, and in many cases risk management, are often not the sole responsibility of the player. As you have pointed out, how a player is trained and coached plays a crucial role in player safety. And therein lie a number of issues where the comparisons to rugby find less equivalence. How the game is played is not just based on following the rules of the sport, but also business and entertainment criteria. Why quarterbacks and wide receivers receive more protection than running backs and linemen has little to do with the logic of the game. Tackling is one of those game fundamentals like shooting in basketball, batting in baseball and the golf swing where constant practice and repetition is necessary even at the highest levels of play. Yet, between league rules and the provisions of the CBA, the practice of tackling has been virtually legislated out of the pro game. These things are normally viewed as just cynical annoyances, until someone gets hurt.

      Shazier has skewed toward spearing in the past, so I won’t challenge your assertions on those grounds, though on further viewing it appeared to me that the initial point of contact was his left shoulder. However, the reason that I brought up my own history is that I had suffered a major upper body injury due a lower leg injury, not so severe that I could not play at all, but restrictive enough that it effected me that I could not position myself properly as I was making a tackle. The speed of the pro game is such that even when healthy, aim points are missed, which is often the real reason for illegal hits or missed tackles. As in the piece, I have no idea if this was a factor, but the pressure to play through injury is much greater at Shazier’s level than at mine, made even worse by the insinuations that he is a china doll. Put this partly on the culture of the game, but also of the business as well.

      Let me end for now with this: Playing rugby you had far more agency than an NFL player does, despite their compensation or notoriety. The pro game exists for the satisfaction of the customer, not the fulfillment of the performers. What will ultimately matter is what the spectator is willing to witness, not what the performer is willing to endure. These things fluctuate, just think about the tolerance of cigarette smoking over the past fifty years.

      From what we are now learning about the subject, those watching the Cincinnati game were subjected to a certain amount of personal trauma when Shazier was injured. We know from data involving soldiers, first responders and others that one need not suffer a physical injury, but to simply witness one in order to experience trauma. It is also an open secret that the players have limited agency, from the league withholding information about head injuries, to all the issues and more discussed in the piece and elsewhere. So, the argument that they are just tough guys doing what they love and willing to shoulder the risk lacks certain critical aspects of nuance IMO. I believe the full range of these issues is a recipe that could lead to a slow retreat from the game. Once the customers leave it matter much what the players believe or are willing to do. Maybe the rugby players will give them some space to play.

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  • Thank you, Ivan, for another challenging article. I am going to have to reread it again and give this whole topic some thought.

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