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This isn’t the NFL I signed up for, While We’re Waiting

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Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

There was theoretically a football game last night. I mean, obviously, they will call it football. There was a winner (Pittsburgh Steelers) and a loser (Cincinnati Bengals). You can look up the score (23-20), there are stats for this game (Ben Roethlisberger went 24/40 for 290 yards with two TDs and one interception). The history books will record this as merely yet another run-of-the-mill 2017 football game.

And the history books are right. Much of what the world saw last night was, indeed, just your typical modern football game. There was violence, brutality, viciousness. All the things we want in our football, the qualities that built the NFL into the money-printing enterprise it is today.

But at some point, is this game going to go too far? I know, this is hardly a novel topic and I am far from the first to bring it up. I’m not going to bring up any new points and I’m not going to change anything. So why am I talking about it at all?

Well, to start with, I suppose, there was Ryan Shazier laying on the ground not moving his legs last night. It was a frightening scene. And yes, it hit closer to home because it was Shazier, a former Buckeye, but it was a moment you wouldn’t wish on anyone. As Shazier went in for a tackle, he led with his helmet and you could practically see the impact of the hit reverberate through his neck and down his spine. Shazier lay still for a moment before reaching for his back as he awkwardly rolled over, his legs still. It was scary and it set a dark mood for the game.

https://twitter.com/FootballPIayers/status/937945692127006721

Things would only get worse from there. The Bengals ended up with three players in the concussion protocol following the game. Dre Kirkpatrick, Joe Mixon, and Vontaze Burfict all suffered concussions in this game. Mixon would receive his concussion in the second quarter when he took a violent hit while carrying the ball.

Burfict may be one of the biggest villains in the NFL, the ultimate dirty player, and king of the cheap shot. He may not be a sympathetic figure in most corners of the NFL, but regardless, this cheap shot delivered to him from JuJu Smith-Schuster was extremely ugly, especially with the way the game was going.

After the game, as Smith-Schuster was talking to reporters and at least attempting to be apologetic and remorseful, you had Antonio Brown repeatedly shouting “karma” to the cameras, completely disrupting the apology. Of course, Brown has reason to be upset. Not only was he on the receiving end of the disgusting cheap shot from Burfict in the playoffs a couple years ago, but he also took another brutal shot to the head on this TD catch late in last night’s game.

https://twitter.com/thefanaticsview/status/937905930783678464

So what do we make of all this? Is it “just football”? I’m not really sure what to make of any of it anymore. I’ve loved football my whole life. I’ve played it a little at a young age, but I’ve followed the sport, I collected football cards as a kid, I’ve written about it plenty over the last ten years, and I continue to watch a good amount of football. I love the sport. But I don’t love watching it anymore and seeing these brutal hits is starting to take its toll.

I don’t have any answers or insights this morning and I’m certainly not here to preach. I’m just here to say that I, personally, am a football fan who is struggling with my own feelings about watching these players destroy themselves like this. Football has taken away players’ use of their legs, it’s left players broken and left behind, it’s ruined lives and families, and as more research into CTE, we’re finding out that the damage might run deeper than we even knew.

I want football to be saved. I feel like there has to be some way to better protect players. We’re never going to regulate away fluke injuries like Shazier’s, but the NFL could probably do more to curb all the cheap hits. Emotions run high when playing football. Guys are flying around the field at top speed trying to hit each other as hard as they can. When emotions boil over, sometimes actions get away from us. That’s how some of these things happen with dirty hits, late hits, and cheap shots.

But there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of remorse or awareness on the part of active players. When Smith-Schuster drills Burfict with a blindside hit, Smith-Schuster’s first instinct is to stand over him and insult him. You have Antonio Brown’s “karma” chants. You have countless players telling the media that the NFL doesn’t have a problem, that this is all just part of the game, and that all players know what they are signing up for. It’s the game they love. I think you have to hardwired in a certain way to play football on this level, and with that comes the ability to compartmentalize the violence from the skill involved to play at this level.

I know things aren’t likely to change anytime soon and maybe they don’t even need to. Maybe this is not a football problem, but a “me” problem. I just know I felt literally sick last night seeing Shazier lay there on the field and then carted off. Following that up with so much violence and brutality in the game was akin to drinking orange juice immediately after brushing your teeth. It’s just a bad taste. And I suspect the NFL didn’t exactly love the way that game unfolded as their showcase game of the week. I’ll be curious to see what, if any, punishment comes down from the league to the players involved in some of these questionable hits.

Either way, the NFL is still the most popular sport in America and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Ratings may be down, there is growing concern for the physical impact of the game and the potentially life-altering injuries involved, and in general, some are openly questioning how much longer the NFL can persist like this. But the NFL had such an enormous lead over the other leagues that they can afford to give back some of their popularity and still firmly hold their top spot. The drama surrounding Jerry Jones and Roger Goodell, the off-field incidents, the suspensions, the court appeals of Ezekiel Elliott and Tom Brady, etc, etc, etc. There’s a lot going on with the NFL. And I’m not rooting for it to fall. I just want to feel better about watching the sport again. I’m hopeful that eventually the players and owners will get together and try to come up with some better solutions.