Ryan Shazier, Vontaze Burfict and the alluring violence of football
Steelers-Bengals was tough to watch, but that’s football
Monday night’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals was one of the more jarring football games to watch this season. It started with a terrifying moment for Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. He injured his spine on a play that looked routine. He covered his face with his hands as he was being strapped to a stretcher and carried off the field. He seemed not to be able to move his legs, and we all feared that he would never move them again.
After a few more plays, I turned off the TV. Images like that rattle me now, much more than they did when I was a player. I returned to the broadcast in the fourth quarter, looking to catch a close finish. I got that and more jarring hits. This time it was Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict strapped down and carried off the field after taking a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit from Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Next, Antonio Brown took a helmet-to-helmet hit from Bengals safety George Iloka after catching the game-tying touchdown. The Steelers went on to win the game.
Afterward, broadcasters Jon Gruden and Sean McDonough were indignant at the level of violence they’d just witnessed. Gruden, a former coach, called Smith-Schuster’s hit sickening. Yet, when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was asked about the brutal game, he appeared unaffected, calling it “AFC North football.”
The remarks of the broadcasters and the quarterback bothered me. Gruden’s and McDonough’s responses are in line with much of the public’s evolving view of football and the threat of brain injury. And Roethlisberger’s remarks felt like a casual reaction to a potentially catastrophic injury. Rothlisberger’s reaction was, That’s football, it happens. And he’s right, what we saw is football, and has been for most of the history of the game.
The league suspended Smith-Schuster and Iloka one game for their illegal hits. Both players appealed, and Iloka’s suspension was reduced to a fine. The league hopes to rid the game of those types of ugly moments, but that does nothing to address the repeat subconcussive hits to the head that contribute to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And it won’t eliminate the most chilling play of the night, the Shazier spinal injury. That’s football. While I am certain no one wants to be confronted with motionless bodies on the field, at least a part of all of us who watch football enjoys the violence that causes those moments.
Football is captivating. I have come to appreciate the game for its complex strategic battles between two teams of unique athletes, with distinct, interdependent roles. But that is not what first drew me to football. The violence was what attracted me as a young fan.
I liked other sports. I played a lot of basketball. Like most boys born in the ’80s, I admired Michael Jordan. But I didn’t want to be like him. I aspired to be tougher. I wanted to run people over and knock people out. In my mind, the fact that football was dangerous made it more attractive.
I was 10 years old for my first real football season. I pulled my helmet on and felt like an action hero. I learned early that season not to let gruesome injuries bother me. I was involved in a tackle that left the opposing running back writhing in pain from a broken shin that had torn through his skin. My teammates and I cried at the sight of the boy’s bloody bone. After he was removed from the field, the coaches said that’s football, and we finished the game.
I could tell stories like that from every level of football I’ve played. But once you get to the NFL, no one needs to tell you “that’s football.” You already know.
I was on the field with the Denver Broncos in Buffalo, New York, when Bills tight end Kevin Everett suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury. We prayed for him and kept playing, as if we were not going to continue doing the thing that just caused a life-altering injury. But we did, because that’s football.
That’s the NFL. Whether it accepts it or not, it has always trafficked in the peril of players and will continue to even as it draws a line between the unsanctioned and sanctioned violence, creating nothing more than the illusion of safety.