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.
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.
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’.