By Mark Paulette
Does the NFL have a problem? It’s long been said that the NFL’s biggest enemy is the game itself. That if football was an unknown, discovered by being played by tribal people with little contact to the outside world, the game would be viewed more as barbaric than something which has grown into arguably the nation’s greatest passion.
Medical advancements have shed light on the potential risks of playing the game, causing the level of furor against the sport to grow to unmatched heights.
I am not here to tote a ‘holier than thou’ opinion of the topic, because frankly, it’s one I had never given much thought. There’s never been a time when I questioned my allegiance to the sport due the health risks of those playing. Admittedly, oftentimes when injuries occur, I find myself either wondering how it will affect the Patriots or my fantasy team. If it’s not in relation to either of the two, it rarely gets a second thought.
At least that was the case until Monday Night, when for the first time, I felt uncomfortable watching a football game as it was the brutality that took center stage between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
It began while watching highlights of Ryan Shazier’s frightening first quarter injury, which at the time it happened, appeared to be life-altering. After attempting to make a tackle when leading with the crown of his helmet, Shazier’s neck buckled back into itself like something you only see in a cartoon. After falling to the ground and flopping himself onto his backside, appearing to use nothing other than the torque of his upper body, Shazier was quickly tended to on the field before being taken off by cart and stretcher. The rumblings soon followed that perhaps the player had been paralyzed, and seemed to be confirmed by both Shazier’s terrified reaction and ESPN camera’s catching an interaction between Pittsburgh GM, Kevin Colbert, and Steelers Head Coach, Mike Tomlin, on the sideline, in which Colbert appeared to relay to Tomlin that the linebacker had no feeling in his legs.
As we now know, thankfully Shazier’s condition is reportedly improving, with the 25-year-old not needing immediate surgery and displaying feeling in all extremities.
While Shazier’s injury wasn’t the result of one person trying to hurt another, it was nevertheless a jarring example of the risks involved with the sport. But the melee that unfolded in the game’s final 50 minutes was more than just, “AFC North football,” as Ben Roethlisberger tried to explain it away as with his postgame comments. There were 20 penalties in total. 13 for Cincinnati, seven for Pittsburgh. Not all were heinous or premeditated acts of violence, but there was certainly enough of the latter to mar the game.
Three Bengals were literally knocked out of the game, beginning with Cincy running back, Joe Mixon, who suffered a clear concussion in the second quarter. As medical personnel rushed onto the field, his motionless body was an all too familiar sight after the Shazier injury in the game’s opening minutes.
Cornerback, Dre Kirkpatrick, would later leave the game as well with concussion symptoms and is currently in the league’s concussion protocol.
It all came to a head in the fourth quarter, when with the Steelers driving to potentially tie the game, Pittsburgh receiver, Juju Smith-Schuster, delivered a vicious crack-back block on Vontaze Burfict, and then taunted the linebacker by standing over his body. Antonio Brown skipped around behind the scene of what was basically a car crash, yelling, “karma, karma,” like a clueless child who just saw the schoolyard bully trip and chip a tooth. Burfict tried to move Smith-Schuster off him, only to realize the state he was in and slump back to the ground.
It’s no secret Burfict is one of the league’s dirtiest players, and the reason Brown displayed such a joyous reaction was because two years ago Burfict knocked Brown out of a playoff game with an equally violent blow. But if you think that justified not only the hit, but the senseless reaction to a player which eventually also had to be immobilized and stretched off the field, you are simply as clueless as those Pittsburgh players were in the heat of the moment.
Smith-Schuster was flagged, but not ejected from the game, and the drive eventually culminated in an AB TD, which saw Bengals’ safety, George Iloka, attempt to decapitate Brown after #84 secured the catch.
Nearly 48 hours after the game’s conclusion, its repercussions include; Smith-Schuster and Iloka serving one-game suspensions which have been handed down from the league office and stem from their hits. Shazier remains hospitalized at the University of Cincinnati, and another three players are left to deal with the post-effects of their head injuries.
Anyone who can simply chalk that up as rivalry football is kidding themselves. These aren’t the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. It’s not acceptable for men to get maimed because “it’s part of the game.”
For the first time, I saw the argument against football. Admittedly, it probably won’t stick in the forefront of my mind. Monday night was an outlier, and each game certainly isn’t as jarring as that one seemed. I’ll watch games this weekend and I’ll get consumed by the action and my fantasy team. I’m not about to boycott football or say people shouldn’t play the game. Monday’s game just gave me an unnerving feeling of the sport which I had never experienced before, and one which I hope doesn’t continue to sour the game in the future.
Mark Paulette is the senior producer of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.